This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 12, 2013
The latest draft master- plan for Singapore's development announced last month focused on three key strategies for Singapore.
The first is to build townships for all ages that are "green, healthy, connected, strong in community interaction and spirit". Second: bring quality jobs closer to home. Third: provide a range of housing options.
When the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) released its Draft Master Plan 2013 last month, it promised that Singaporeans will "continue to enjoy a good quality living environment in new housing areas at Bidadari, Tampines North and Punggol". Established towns will also be rejuvenated with new homes.
The masterplan earmarked two new districts, Marina South and Kampong Bugis, for development into eco-friendly and walkable residential districts.
Marina South is east of Marina Bay and next to Gardens by the Bay. It is slated to have around 9,000 private homes on a 21.5ha piece of land. Kampong Bugis, an 18ha area bounded by Kallang Road and Crawford Street, will get about 4,000 private homes.
Neither area has public housing planned for it at the moment.
Analysts were quick to interpret the draft masterplan as one that tried to foster more inclusiveness in Singapore, for instance by ensuring that Marina South and Kampong Bugis are not gated communities for the rich but are "fenceless" pedestrian-friendly zones accessible to all.
This opens up an interesting possibility: how about putting public housing in these prime downtown areas?
Can a Housing Board precinct rise amidst Marina South's elevated landscaped walkways, or along the waterfront park in Kampong Bugis? This would after all fulfill URA's objectives to build townships strong in community interaction, bring jobs closer to homes, and widen housing options.
A quick poll of 10 analysts found six who thought this worth exploring, and four who were plain aghast at the thought.
But in fact, the concept is not so out of kilter with Singapore's own development history.
Early HDB precincts were built in the city centre such as Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown, to house people living in the overcrowded central urban core.
HDB was set up in 1960 after Singapore became self-governing under the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1959. The first two HDB blocks in Tanjong Pagar were built on Cantonment Road in 1963, at Duxton Plain where the Pinnacle@Duxton now stands.
In Chinatown, the flats at Jalan Minyak in York Hill were completed in 1964, while Blocks 335A and 335B Smith Street were completed in 1983.
American political scientist Robert Gamer, who studied Singapore's urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s, noted in a 1972 book titled The Politics Of Urban Development In Singapore: "The old city found millionaire and pauper living side by side... Rich and poor could get to know one another, talk to one another, and help one another out on a personal basis. This undoubtedly had a tempering effect on class antagonisms."
But he also warned: "This lever of social control will be missing in the future. Millionaires do not frequent housing estates."
Perhaps in part due to such fears, urban planners like URA general manager Alan Choe said in 1975 that "the residential usage proposed in the central area must cater for all social groups". He advocated public housing, middle- income housing and luxury flats, and added that "most of them will have to be in the form of high-rise tower blocks to justify high land costs".
Newer estates were later built farther from the city centre as the country developed. But as recently as 2008, new HDB housing was erected in the city centre. This was the Pinnacle@Duxton development in Tanjong Pagar. But this was, arguably, a unique project.
Too expensive land?
PRIME land is too costly to justify building public housing, some argue. CIMB economist Song Seng Wun noted: "Wherever you are in the world, the property values in and around CBD (central business district) areas will be relatively more expensive than other parts of the city. In the case of tiny Singapore, it is even more so."
At tenders for 99-year leasehold state land, plots in the city centre fetch much higher prices than those in suburban areas. In September, a Mount Sophia residential plot drew a top bid of $1,157 per sq ft per plot ratio. This was more than twice the top bid of $522 psf ppr for a plot in Upper Serangoon View last month.
The Government itself is acutely aware of the economic costs of providing HDB flats. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview for a book commemorating HDB's 50th anniversary that public housing was "a good investment in our social infrastructure, but we have to be conscious of the cost and the resources that we are putting into this". This was not just the construction cost but also the cost of the land that has to be set aside, he said.
A few analysts cite the controversial example of the Pinnacle@ Duxton as reason why HDB should not repeat that episode.
The old HDB flats on that site were torn down and rebuilt. At its launch in 2004, private developers complained that the designer- style flats in a prime area competed with private apartments. This prompted the Government then to say that the Pinnacle was a special one-off project and the HDB "will not roll out a similar project within the CBD".
Then, at its relaunch in 2008, its high prices drew flak from buyers. A 49th-storey five-room unit was priced at $645,800 in September 2008. That eclipsed the previous record of $531,000 for a new HDB five-room unit at Toa Payoh in February 2008.
Incensed flat buyers wrote to The Straits Times Forum page to criticise the HDB's "market- based pricing approach", and for "further stoking the inflationary trend of home prices".
HDB flats in the new downtown areas would be even more costly. Mr Alan Cheong, a property analyst at Savills Singapore, reckoned that a four-room flat with an unobstructed scenic view might be priced as high as $900,000. "If flats there are beyond the reach of the average Singaporean, that may not truly promote the cause of inclusiveness," Mr Cheong said.
Sociologist Chua Beng Huat said that adding HDB flats to downtown districts just to demonstrate inclusiveness could be "tokenism of the worst kind". Instead of truly including the less well-off, it would constantly remind them that they were poorer than their neighbours living in the private condominiums, Prof Chua said.
Others said only a small number of lucky households would benefit from HDB flats in prime areas, stoking envy among others.
PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant Choo Eng Beng said the plan for "fenceless" precincts in the new downtown areas was inclusive enough. "I don't feel that there's a difference in terms of social community if you add public housing there," he said. He added that the benefits from selling the land in central areas to private developers could be used to build "better quality HDB houses for the country as a whole" and more infrastructure.
Instead of building HDB flats in pricey Kampong Bugis and Marina South, "it would be better if prices can be lowered in general for the new 500,000 upcoming public housing (flats) so that all new homeowners can benefit", added Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) researcher Tan Meng Wah.
Another issue is whether the presence of HDB flats could affect land values in prime areas. One real estate industry insider who requested anonymity said that building HDB flats on prime land "may not be doing justice to the land" and could lower its future value.
It would also alter the identity of the downtown district. He asked rhetorically: "Would you want to put an HDB flat into a GCB (good class bungalow) area?"
ON THE flip side, those who support having HDB flats in central areas argue that it promotes both inclusiveness and greater diversity.
Visiting these areas to enjoy their amenities will not be quite the same as living there, they say.
As veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon put it: "We don't want to be a tourist in our own land."
IPS economist Yeoh Lam Keong said adding public housing - from rental to five-room flats - would ensure a "better mix of socioeconomic classes and ethnic mixing". Without that, Kampong Bugis and Marina South could become "a very rich ghetto", he warned. "That's unhealthy in terms of national identity; people will feel that the best areas are not accessible to them."
In any case, the Government has already forgone billions in land revenue by zoning expensive prime land in Marina for a public park, Gardens by the Bay. Allocating land for public housing in prime areas is similarly "for the greater public good", he said.
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy senior fellow Donald Low favoured having public housing in central areas as this added to diversity. "I'm a big fan of dense, compact neighbourhoods which have a great deal of diversity in terms of the mix of residential types, varied retail and office buildings and with people of all ages from different income groups living in close proximity."
He cited Holland Village - where HDB flats and hawker centres surround landed housing, condominiums, trendy eateries, spas and banks - as an example. Katong is another.
He argued that a decision on whether public housing should be included in the new downtown areas should not be based purely on financial returns. Social returns should not be underestimated.
These come from creating neighbourhoods that people enjoy; having people from different strata of society live in close proximity; and "from creating a sense of commonality rather than exclusivity", he argued.
Mr Yeoh acknowledged that having HDB flats on prime land may lower the land value there, but asked: "What is the value of having very expensive areas, what does that do for national prosperity? It's probably negative social value... You may have a loss because the government land may be sold for less, but this is a worthwhile cost to the state."
And as CIMB's Mr Song noted, taking the focus on price to its logical conclusion would result in public housing being pushed farther into the outskirts. "Can you imagine public housing being pushed into Johor, if Singapore is so expensive next time? That's a terrible scenario," he said.
In the 1970s, when Singapore was far less developed, urban planners considered not just the economic cost but also the social impact of putting HDB flats in prime areas. Will today's planners maximise land revenue? Will they remember the backlash from the Pinnacle and eschew new public housing in prime areas?
It is by no means an easy call.
One thing is for sure: more is at stake than just the physical cityscape.