Kampungs to High Rise: The History of Public Housing in Singapore

PropertyGuru Editorial Team
Kampungs to High Rise: The History of Public Housing in Singapore
Singapore is known for being a gleaming first-world metropolis. Looking at the city skyline now, it’s hard to imagine that 60 years ago, most of Singapore was still squatter towns and slums. The 1947 British Housing Committee Report noted Singapore had “one of the world’s worst slums – a disgrace to a civilised community”.
Singapore has since come a long way from attap houses and kampungs. Over time, our public housing has evolved to meet the needs of a growing population and land constraints.
1932-1959: Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) Flats
In 1927, the Singapore Improvement Trust was founded by the British colonial government as part of efforts to improve the living conditions of people in Singapore. The first houses built by the SIT were at Lorong Limau in 1932. However, these were considered “artisan quarters”, and not the public housing estates we are familiar with today.
SIT’s second major building scheme at Tiong Bahru saw 784 flats, 54 tenements and 33 shops built between 1936 and 1941. There are said to be Singapore’s first public housing estate. Artisan quarters and tenements were also built in Balestier and other congested parts of the city.
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A Dire Need For More Public Housing
Post-war, the need for public housing became a pressing issue. In 1953, the trust announced plans to build its first satellite town, Queenstown. The town would house 70,000 people and have amenities such as schools, clinics, markets, shopping centres, and recreational facilities. In 1956, the SIT completed its first neighbourhood in Queenstown, which included a 14-storey block of flats named Forfar House.
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In 1960, the SIT was dissolved, and its duties were taken over by the HDB.
1960’s to Present: Housing Development Board (HDB)
In February 1960, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established to develop public housing and improve the quality of living for residents. Led by Lim Kim San, its priority was to build as many low-cost housing units as possible. Initially, the first units built were intended for rental. In 1964, HDB began selling flats under an ownership scheme.
In its first decade, HDB built one-room to four-room flats. In the 1970s, five-room flats were introduced, followed by executive apartments and maisonettes due to demand for bigger apartments. HDB has been continually improving and updating design plans for new flats to adapt to the changing needs of the population.
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Building Self-sustaining Towns
HDB also fully adopted SIT’s “new town” concept and implemented it on a large scale. Each HDB town is designed to be self-sustainable, with various amenities catering to common needs. Education, healthcare, and recreation amenities can be found in most towns. Tampines, Hougang and Woodlands are among the largest of these new towns.
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Each block of flats can be considered a vertical community. A common area is often built into the design to promote social interaction. Void decks, a uniquely Singaporean term, refers to the first level which is often left as an open space for communal activities. These spaces are used for activities such as weddings, funerals, parties, and even polling stations. Selected blocks sometimes feature minimarts to cater to residents in the area. Other facilities include playgrounds, clinics, kindergartens, and Residential Committee offices.
Today, HDB flats come in several varieties, such as one-room flats, two-room flats, three-room flats, four-room flats, five-room flats, executive flats, studio apartments, and HUDC flats. Previously, HDB only built flats ranging from one-room to four-room, but later added executive apartments and maisonettes to cater to a growing demand for larger flats. Design plans have been updated over the years to cater to the changing needs and preferences of buyers, such as elderly-friendly studio apartments for the ageing population.
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