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The man who helped create Singapore’s housing boom is getting worried

·7-min read
Liu personally oversaw the development of more than half a million public housing units. (PHOTO: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg)
Liu personally oversaw the development of more than half a million public housing units. (PHOTO: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg)

By Faris Mokhtar

(Bloomberg) — Glossy, cosmopolitan Singapore is playing host to a very unusual balancing act. The city is one of Asia’s most expensive property markets — and at the same time, boasts one of the highest home ownership rates in the world.

Liu Thai Ker, “the architect of modern Singapore,” is a big part of the reason why.

As the chief architect of Singapore’s Housing Development Board, Liu was instrumental in establishing a housing model that has underpinned decades of astonishing economic growth. The 84-year-old Yale graduate personally oversaw the development of more than half a million public housing units.

Now, almost 90% of the city’s residents own the well-designed, government-built apartments they live in. Since its independence in 1965, citizens have been able to buy these units at a steep discount, turning homeownership into a key way for Singaporeans to grow their wealth.

But in the past few years — and especially since the pandemic, which plunged the city into its worst-ever recession — Singapore’s housing model has come under heightened scrutiny. As this week’s episode of The Pay Check podcast explores, surging prices and thinning profits are raising concerns about growing inequality among the city’s citizens and threatening to unravel its lauded housing model.

In an interview, Liu explained how Singapore’s property market got to where it is now — and how he sees it going forward.

Q: You were a student in Australia and the US, then you worked for the celebrated architect IM Pei in New York. What brought you back to Singapore?

After the Second World War, both Malaysia and Singapore were extremely, extremely poor. And the environment was extremely bad. You could actually blindfold yourself and know you were at the Singapore river. Why? You could smell the sewage. That’s the Singapore we were in those days.

I told myself even before I went overseas, that I want to upgrade myself. First of all, to speak English as well as anyone else. Second, I wanted to become one of the top students at the university. And third, to come back to help rebuild Singapore.

Q: Three-quarters of Singapore’s population lived in overcrowded slums in 1960, when the HDB was formed. What was your vision for the city?

I was trained with a degree in architecture and in planning. And I was very envious of the old cities in the West — in Europe, particularly, and also Manhattan. It’s very tidy, very neat, very easy to find your way around. I wanted Singapore to be as good.

A lot of my ideas in planning came from the West, like the “new town.” My job was to translate those concepts into quantifiable specifications. Today, we [in Singapore] have many highly self-sufficient new towns — but in the West, I don’t think I can find them yet. They had the concept, but they didn’t have people to translate it.

Q: Public housing often has a poor reputation, but that’s not the case in Singapore. Why is the city’s government-built housing so well-regarded?

So we actually did not build housing, we built communities. For example, we broke down new towns into neighbourhoods. And within each precinct, I wanted to make sure we have one- to five-room flats together. But not just anyhow. You don’t mix one and three together because the economic gap is too big, it will create envy. You can only mix one- and two-room flats and then two- and three-room flats. So all these things have been built into the hardware.

And actually, even a small thing like this: We used to have one-room flats with central corridors. After going to Europe, I realised that when we have a central corridor, there’s no light inside. And when there’s no good lighting, people are in a bad mood and they tend to fight more. That’s why we got rid of that [design].

It did not happen by luck, every little bit was a result of hard work and hard thinking.

Q: How did housing become a tool for building wealth in Singapore?

It was a gradual process. I’m speaking as a planner, an architect. I’m not speaking as an economist.

The only resource we have in Singapore is human beings, and we have to look after our human beings to survive as a country. So, first of all you have to satisfy the basic human needs: to clothe them, feed them, to give them housing, to have good transportation.

This is very important. Because if you don’t have a home, first of all, you cannot concentrate on your work. And second, our public housing [agency] is probably one of very, very few in the world that built housing not just to rent but to sell. When you own your own property, then you will feel that you have taken root in the society. And you will also want to defend the country and help build the economy. So, homeownership is another very important factor in the success story of public housing.

Q: Has the model worked well, is the public reaping the benefits?

We didn’t want people who lived in public housing to feel that they were inferior. So, we wanted their housing value to increase.

One of my jobs at the HDB was to monitor the supply of public housing against demand to make sure that people don’t have to wait too long to get public housing. In fact, what we wanted was to have supply slightly higher than demand so that people will not spend huge prices.

I do worry that nowadays that public housing has become a kind of business venture rather than actually solving the housing needs. I feel that the implication may not be very good for the economic development of Singapore.

Q: Is Singapore’s housing policy still working in terms of social mobility?

As long as the HDB is able to control their land price and consumption costs, hopefully they can control the selling price. But I’m totally out of touch with HDB, I don’t know whether they’re able to do that. If they cannot do that, then I think the key factor of having successful public housing may be compromised.

Q: What are you proposals for ensuring Singapore has a sustainable housing model?

Personally, I feel that our original policy — one, to monitor supply and demand and two, to build relatively low-cost housing — is still valid. And on top of that, of course, to build highly self-sufficient new towns. All these things have respectively contribute to our economic growth.

I would say, keep the housing price rising steadily and not in a crazy way. But how to make that transition — I think we need some economists’ advice. Because now it has gone crazy. If you suddenly control it, I don’t know what negative effect there could be. We need an economist to study it. But my wish is that we would go back to something more steady, so that our property price remain more predictable.

Q: Having seen Singapore develop over the decades, what are your thoughts about where the city goes next?

We should be thankful that the first-generation political leaders championed meritocracy.  Meritocracy helped us to educate almost everybody. In terms of job market, the government also has been very careful in keeping a good spread of jobs for different ethnic groups. Even gender equality is steadily improving.

When we first started, our economy was behind Manila, Yangon and Ho Chi Minh City, so we had a crisis mentality. Our first-generation political leaders feared for our survival. And now we appear to be very successful — and we are — but I personally feel that as a tiny country without resources, we must insist on maintaining the crisis mentality in order to survive. The crisis is still lurking behind our successful appearance.

Liu Thai Ker’s remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.