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Flat Living: In Pursuit of Singapore’s Public Housing

In 1000 Singapores: A Model  of the Compact City, Khoo Peng Beng, Belinda Huang, Erik G. L’Heureux and Florian Schaetz, eds. (Singapore: Singapore Institute of Architects, 2010), 189-201.

1000 Singapore Book Photo1.jpg


O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams.' 1

He lived there for twelve years, well into his adolescence. Theirs was an extended family - his parents, his brother, two spinster aunts, and his grandparents all squeezed into 700 square feet of space. There were silly arguments about small things like the misuse of shampoo and whose turn it was to clean their only toilet.

Singapore is an enigma. It is perpetually poised in survival mode, solving a problem in order to anticipate the next, and counting this artificial adrenaline surge as necessary pragmatism in a bid to evolve, compete and excel. It has been promoted as a global "super-city", and achieved a much criticised if also enviable contemporary blend of Haussmanisation in its physical, economical and social fronts.2 The constraints of its physical size has driven rather than restrained the city from conquering the depths of "infinite space". Boasting one of the world's best ports and airports, and considered one of Asia's leading financial centres, Singapore is also a post-industrialised garden city with an existing 1,800ha of parks, gardens and recreation spaces. This figure will be boosted by another 94ha when the ambitious waterfront botanical garden, conservatory and park, the Gardens by the Bay, is finally completed.3

Since self-governance in 1959, when initially burdened with high rates of unemployment, a rapidly growing population, urban squalor and poverty, its government initiated and successfully implemented a developmental city state in which "pragmatism" was an ideology "in part historically and materially imposed ... by the domestic economic condition and the geopolitical situation of the 1960s"4. A capitalist model was adopted for two reasons. First, rejecting the Chinese socialist model in order to ingratiate itself as part of a predominantly non-Chinese Southeast Asian political landscape, and second, to compensate for the lack of indigenous exports and an absence of its own hinterland. The government's reactive stance to a perceived "atmosphere of psychosis, in direct relation to the perpetual challenge of shaky external events"5 is key to its phenomenally successful performance on the world economic stage. This idiosyncrasy also gives particular insight into why one of its most touted trophies, the sustained over-achievement of Singapore's own brand of public housing, easily distinguishes itself from the conventional model of social housing, which is often perceived elsewhere as a stigmatised state provision.




1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene II.
2. Singapore's status as a "super-city" was promoted by its Tourism Board; see, for example, The Official Guide (Singapore: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 1995).

3. The first phase of Gardens by the Bay is expected to
be completed at the end of 2011.
4. Chua Seng Huat, "Not Depoliticized but Ideologically Successful: The Public Housing Programme in Singapore", in Ong Jin Hui, Tong Chee Kiang and Tan Em Ser (eds.), Understanding Singapore Society (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1997), p. 311. For discussions on Singapore as a developmental state, see Martin Perry, Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh, Singapore: A Developmental City State (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 1997), pp. 6-12.
5. Phillippe Regnier, Singapore: City-State in Southeast Asia (London: Hurst and Company, 1991), p. 230. Cited in Perry et. al., Singapore: A Developmental City State, p. 10.

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