Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at the HDB PEAK Forum

Sep 4, 2018

Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to join you this morning at the HDB PEAK Forum. 

I think all of you would know that public housing in Singapore is more than just about affordable housing. It’s really a national institution that we have painstakingly built up over many decades. You can find public housing anywhere in the world, but you will never find the same scale and quality of public housing outside of Singapore.

In some countries, public housing even has a negative reputation, associated with poor living conditions and bad neighbourhoods. That is clearly not the case in Singapore. About 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, most of which they own, and this has enabled a vast majority of Singaporeans to have a tangible stake in our nation’s progress.

More importantly in our HDB flats, Singaporeans across all races and religions, live side by side with one another. We eat at the nearby hawker centers, we shop at the neighbourhood centers, our children play and grow up together, and we develop a sense of community and belonging. So HDB living is very much an integral part of our national identity and our way of life. 

Public housing in Singapore is truly something special that all of us can be very proud of. HDB has just revamped its visitors’ gallery so that we can better tell the story of how we have housed a nation and I encourage all of you to spend some time visiting the HDB Gallery later.

International observers have also noticed what we have done with public housing and we have garnered many international accolades. Just recently, somebody sent me a video clip from Bloomberg. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but it was a video that highlighted how we overcame the severe housing shortage in Singapore in our early years to becoming one of the best public housing programmes in the world. 

As the video put it, and I quote, “it was a mighty agency (presumably they meant HDB), with effective policies and strong political will which has fixed Singapore’s housing crisis and improved the conditions of millions”. I think this captures well the key reasons for our success in public housing. It was due to good long-term planning by the government, in particular HDB; strong support from the people for these plans, because it is one thing to have plans, but if the people do not support the plans, the plans cannot be implemented. So good planning, strong support from the people for the plans and finally consistent and steady implementation of the plans over many years and across successive terms of government.

You could see an example of this at the recent National Day Rally, when Prime Minister showed the video of Punggol. I believe many of you would have seen that video. He started by showing visuals of Punggol based on the visuals that were done at that time in 2007, and he juxtaposed it with the actual shots of Punggol today. In fact, I remember very well what was shown in 2007 because I was then the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, and I worked with the HDB team. Some of them are still here. I worked with them very closely on the visuals for Punggol Town to be shown at the National Day Rally in 2007, together with the students from Nanyang Polytechnic.

Then, the plans were preliminary ones that HDB had conceptualised - the Waterway through the Town, connecting two reservoirs which would then open up opportunities for waterfront living and recreational activities. More than 10 years later, today, I am very happy that we could show the final product – what Punggol actually looks like today – using an aerial drone to show the actual shots of Punggol.

What’s even more gratifying is to hear the feedback from the audience and from many Singaporeans - that when they saw the juxtaposition of 2007 and the shots today, they said what they have today in real life is even better than the visuals in 2007. It is not just marketing, it is for real and it is even better. I think it very much reflects the ethos of the government and HDB, that we don’t just talk but deliver on what we promise through hard work. After Punggol, we are now going to launch a new town. Today, I will show you a new video of Tengah that is to come. Please watch it for a while. 

Our CGI capabilities have improved - the graphics look better. But I assure you, the real thing will be better than this. Just as with Punggol, we showed the visuals in 2007, and we made sure that the real Punggol is better than what we showed then. In 15 years’ time, when Tengah is completed, I think the HDB team can then fly a drone around Tengah to show what the actual town of Tengah looks like, and we will work very hard to make sure it is even better than what you see on screen today.

While we have achieved a lot in public housing, there’s always scope to improve and that must be our attitude. We are always seeking to do better. Public housing is one topic that Singaporeans care deeply about, and that is to be expected given that we are a nation of home owners. MND and HDB receive many suggestions and we welcome all feedback and views on public housing. But the debate must always be based on facts, not misinformation and half-truths. For example, there have been allegations going around, I’m sure you have received them too - that HDB flat buyers don’t really own their flats, they are simply renting them. 

But there is no basis to such a claim - it is factually and legally wrong. The concept of leasehold is not new or unique to Singapore. In fact, it applies not just to public, it also applies to private residential flats. Since the beginning of the Government Land Sales programme in 1967, all sites for private residential land have been sold on leases not more than 99 years. This has been the case for the bulk of our land in Singapore – public and private.

There is a very good reason why we do this. It is because we have limited space in Singapore and we need to recycle land to create affordable housing for future generations. Let’s look at the experience in many other cities, where they do not have the ability to recycle the land. What happens is that very soon, there is a shortage of space within the city centre, and it simply means that housing becomes very expensive, unaffordable for young residents in the city. What invariably happens is that they get pushed out to the suburban areas and they live further and further away from their work places and they have to do longer commuting times to get to work. This is the experience you see everywhere in the world. We can avoid this by having leasehold land and recycling the land so that we can always ensure affordable housing for future generations. Buying leasehold is not the same as long-term rental. All buyers of leasehold properties – be it public or private leasehold - enjoy ownership rights over their properties during the period of their lease. They can sell their properties and benefit from any upside, or rent it out if they choose to. These are exclusive ownership rights. These facts are clear and the law in Singapore is also very clear about the ownership rights conferred to leasehold property owners be it public or private. And so it is important to set the record straight, what leasehold is about, and that purchase of the leasehold property, be it public or private, confers ownership rights to the property owner.

Of course, there are other aspects of housing policies where people may well have different views and opinions and that’s fine. In fact, we will welcome these different opinions. You may have views on how we can better integrate rental and sold flats within the HDB precinct, how much should we subsidise public housing, and if we want to do more, how do we ensure fiscal sustainability over the longer term. These are policy issues with difficult trade-offs, and we welcome all the inputs so that we can consider the diverse range of opinions in our decision-making, have a more robust process to improve housing policies in Singapore.

In short, the government is committed to strengthening our institution of public housing and home ownership. But this work is really a collective undertaking and it requires close partnership with Singaporeans. Take the task of designing and building our HDB flats and estates. HDB plays a leading role in this, but there are also many other players involved – many of you in this room – our architects, our engineers, our builders, the Town Councils, and the many contractors who provide valuable municipal services. All of you come together to contribute to the success of our HDB estates. 

To strengthen this partnership, I am happy to announce that HDB will launch a Design Guide for every town. The guide will set out the planning urban design and architectural intent of each town, including its distinctive character and heritage. It is really meant as a guide for all stakeholders. It is not a prescriptive document of dos and don’ts, so take it in the right spirit. The guide will help different teams of consultants, architects, contractors involved in the town to better understand its history, its heritage, its character, its planning and architectural intent. It should be seen as a living document - continuously updated over time with new ideas, so that we can all play a part in improving the design and the quality of our HDB estates.

The first Town Design Guide has been completed for Woodlands Town. Over the next few years, HDB will progressively roll out the Town Design Guides for all the HDB towns. We welcome your views and feedback – so those of you who are practitioners involved in design, architectural, engineering, consulting work within the town, I hope you will find the guide useful. But please let us have your feedback so we can continue to improve the guide with your inputs. 

Another major area of work for HDB is the task of renewing and rejuvenating our estates, as our building stock gets older. At the National Day Rally, Prime Minister shared some of the long-term road map for public housing to deal with this issue. There are two major components to this. First, Home Improvement Programme II, where we are looking to upgrade our flats when they are around 60 years – which means that all HDB flats will be upgraded twice in their lifetime. 

Second, a new Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme, called VERS, will help to facilitate the redevelopment of older flats. This has been in the news so I will not belabour the points. VERS in particular, is important because of the way we had to build our existing towns in the 70s and 80s. Back then, we had no choice but to build in a hurry because the population was growing so rapidly. In fact, from 1984 to 1988, more than 210,000 flats were made available to Singaporeans within this 5-year period, and that is equivalent to about one Ang Mo Kio town a year. Can you imagine how fast we were ramping up our building stock in order to house a nation then? We really don’t have to repeat this in the future, and we really don’t want to. Otherwise, in 50 years’ time, the whole of Singapore will be another construction zone. So there is no need and we shouldn’t have to repeat this sort of building cycle. It is better to space out the redevelopment over a 20 to 30-year period and that’s why the mechanism of VERS will allow us to progressively renew and redevelop and add vibrancy to all our older HDB towns. These are bold long-term plans for our next phase of public housing.

In some ways, it will be even more challenging than what we had to do in our early years. There is no doubt what we had to do in our early years was very difficult, and the pioneers who have gone through that period will be able to tell you. But back then, we were building on new green field sites. Going forward, we will have to do massive rejuvenation, we will be undertaking urban redevelopment on a scale that I think no other country has done. It’s a challenge but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for all of us to reimagine and to rebuild Singapore together, and to make the next version of HDB living even better than what it is today.

So the HDB story is very much like the Singapore story. It is an evolving story, it’s a work-in-progress, always trying to do better.  And I will call on all Singaporeans, let’s come together to write this next chapter of our HDB story. Let’s work together to strengthen public housing in Singapore. Let’s build even better homes for many more generations to come. 

Thank you.