From Villages to Flats (Part 2) – Public Housing in Singapore

The history of the public housing in Singapore is largely divided into two sections: The Singapore Improvement Trust’s (SIT) period and the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) era. Two minor players that had also contributed in the building of public housing were Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) Private Limited.

The percentage of the local population living in public housing was raised from 9% in 1959 to 23% in 1965. Since 1985, at least 80% of the Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

For decades, kampong and flats actually co-existed on this island. Today, the kampong days were long gone, cherished by many older generations, while most of the younger generations have their childhoods spent in HDB flats, playgrounds and other facilities that are common in a typical new town.

Here’s a look at some of the most iconic old flats (more than 30 years old) built by SIT and HDB from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT)

Its Origin

In the early 20th century, the British colonial government began to tackle the housing issues in Singapore, mainly due to overcrowding, poor hygienic and living conditions in shophouses, villages and squatter settlements. The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was proposed in 1920, before the bill was finally passed seven years later. The newly set up entity took on its first project in the creation of Tiong Bahru Estate in the thirties.

Singapore’s population grew exponentially after the Second World War, and the ineffectiveness of SIT was exposed when its supply of housing could not meet the demand. In three decades, SIT could only manage to build 32,000 units. Eventually it was dissolved in 1959, replaced by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) which was established in 1960.

1926 – City (Proposal)

After conducting survey around the Downtown Core of Singapore, the Municipal Council expressed shock at conditions of the slums found in the city. Three areas were identified by SIT to have the worst conditions, including Lorong Brunei (now defunct) between Queen Street and Victoria Street, Albert Street and Lorong Krian (now defunct) near Rochor Road, and Sago Street in Chinatown.

Due to insufficient funds, the plans to clear up the slums and provide alternative housing to resettle the squatters were not successful.

1927 to 1936 – Tiong Bahru (Pre-War)

After almost a decade of the removal of the villages and the exhumation of graves, the first flats were finally built at Tiong Bahru in 1936. Tiong Bahru became SIT’s first completed project, and the flats were later known as the pre-war flats, with reference to the Second World War. Numbered from 55 to 82, these blocks were mostly three to five storeys tall, thus the neighbourhood was given a common name called gor lau (five-storey) by the local Chinese. Due to the threat of war, the flats were designed with thick walls and underground bunkers. The block of 78 at Guan Chuan Street still processes the only remaining public air raid shelter in Singapore.

The pre-war flats were given privatisation status from 1965 to 1967 by the government, at a price range of $10,000 to $32,000 for the two-roomed units and a five-roomed units respectively. In 2003, they were placed under the conservation list.

1938 – Chinatown

Under the Jackson Plan of 1822, an area in what is Chinatown today was allocated for the early Chinese to settle. By the early 20th century, the shophouses in Chinatown were plagued by over-congestion, crime and hygienic issues.

In order to solve the housing needs at Chinatown, SIT built several public flats at New Bridge Road, Trengganu Street and Banda Street starting from 1938. These flats, known fondly as fay kay lou (飞机楼; literally means aeroplane building in Cantonese) due to their resemblance to Kallang Airport’s control tower, were demolished in 1975 and replaced by Kreta Ayer Centre.

The SIT flats along Smith Street had brought horrendous memories to the locals as they were used by the Kempetai, Imperial Japanese Army’s military police, as their sub-headquarters in the city area during the Second World War.

Beside the flats, SIT also built rows of four-storey shophouses along New Bridge Road and Cross Street that are conserved till this day.

1947 – Balestier

In the development of Balestier estate, SIT built a series of white single-storey flats near Lorong Limau. Called Artisan Dwellings, the name of these flats was derived from the United Kingdom’s The Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act. The act, passed in 1875, was to allow the Municipal Council the power to demolish slums.

1948 to 1950 – Bugis

The invitation for tenders for the construction of SIT Flats in Bugis were released in 1947. The four-storey blocks were completed in the late 1940s, located between Albert Street and Cheng Yan Place. The flats lasted until the eighties before their demolition, and its site was replaced by Bugis Village. Part of Albert Street was renamed New Bugis Street, which is now an inner road inside the shopping mall.

1948 to 1951 – Tiong Bahru (Post-War)

Another set of flats at Tiong Bahru was built after the Second World War, in the period of 1948 to 1951. Equipped with large round staircases, these flats were largely modeled after new towns in Britain, and designed with Art Deco and international style.

After 1973, the post-war flats, numbered between 17 and 50, were sold to residents as regulated HDB flats.

1948 to 1952 – Kampong Java

After the Second World War, SIT also built a number of flats and shophouses at Kampong Java, near present-day Newton Circus. Today, the estate had become defunct and replaced by high-rise condominiums. The SIT flats used to be situated along Kampong Java Road, Norfolk Road and Winstedt Road.

1950 – Princess Elizabeth Estate, Upper Bukit Timah & Farrer Park

Located at Upper Bukit Timah (beside present-day Hillview District), Princess Elizabeth Estate was named after then-Princess Elizabeth in 1950 to commemorate her royal wedding. SIT developed this estate with a mixture of single-storey, three-storey and seven-storey flats, fitted with electricity and water supplies. A total of 24 blocks were built, sufficient for some 1,200 residents.

Princess Elizabeth Estate had ceased to exist after the mid-nineties. The only remnants of this estate today are Elizabeth Drive and Princess Elizabeth Primary School, which has since moved to Bukit Batok after the estate was demolished.

There was another Princess Elizabeth Estate built by SIT at Race Course Road, Farrer Park. The twin estates often gave rise to confusion because of their similarity in the names: One was called Princess Elizabeth Park (Upper Bukit Timah), while the other was known as Princess Elizabeth Flats (Farrer Park).

Princess Elizabeth Flats were demolished in 1978, to be replaced by what is known as Pek Kio now.

1951 – Hong Lim Park

The three nine-storey SIT flats along Upper Pickering Street were built in 1951 and situated just opposite the popular Hong Lim Park. One of the blocks was used by SIT as one of its offices.

The original design included another curved block at the back of the three flats (at Upper Hokien Street) but the plan never materialised. Its site is now occupied by Hong Lim Complex.

The flats would, however, become infamous as the suicide flats (similar to Forfar House mentioned below). 20 people had jumped off the buildings in five years after its completion. The last two blocks were demolished in 2003.

1952 – Serangoon

In the early fifties, SIT embarked on a housing project at Little India, building many two-storey flats between Gloucester Road and Race Course Road. Some of these flats lasted until the eighties.

Another set of flats was built at Kolam Ayer, at the end of Bendemeer Road.

Besides flats, SIT also built small housing estate with uniquely designed houses. A fine example was the “Dutch’s Corner” in the Serangoon district. Seventeen houses styled like little Dutch cottages had lined up along Dorset Road for more than 30 years before they were demolished in 1973.

1953 to 1955 – Tanglin Halt, Queenstown

Built before the independence of Singapore, the three-storey and four-storey flats at Tanglin Halt, only seven of them left currently, are the renmants of the SIT low-rise flats in Queenstown. A couple of these flats are now leased to yo:HA Commonwealth as hostels for exchange students of the National University of Singapore.

1953 to 1958 – Silat Avenue

In the fifties, 15 blocks of SIT flats and a Silat Community Centre were built at Silat Avenue to accommodate the residents from the nearby Kampong Silat.

The community centre and two front blocks were torn down in the late nineties, while the remaining 13 blocks enjoyed the peaceful environment of Kampong Bahru for another decade before they were listed for en-bloc in 2007.

By 2012, most of the blocks were vacated, and expected to make way for new buildings in another couple of years.

1954 to 1970 – Margaret Drive, Queenstown

The district of Margaret Drive was formerly known as Duchess Estate, which was one of the five neighbourhoods in Queenstown planned by SIT. The development of this district began in 1954, and was only fully completed in 1970, years after HDB took over, where it built a library, cinemas, hawker centres, wet markets and shops.

The red-bricked flats, 15-storey tall, were different from the previous low-rise housing projects by SIT. Most of these flats were demolished by end of 2011 to make way for the redevelopment of Queenstown.

1954 to 1958 – Kim Keat, Toa Payoh

In 1954, SIT celebrated the completion of their 10,000th unit at Kim Keat, otherwise known as the Temple Estate. The white three-storey flats stood side-by-side with the brown attap houses of the kampong that already existed in that region.

The success of the low-rise flats prompted SIT to build more flats, taller at nine-storey, at Kim Keat four years later in 1958.

1955 – Guillemard Road

SIT flats at Guillemard Road were built to accommodate the illegal squatters living at the reclaimed land around Beach Road. The attap houses were demolished due to the construction of the Merdeka Bridge over Kallang Basin.

1955 – Redhill Close

Before being dissolved, SIT managed to built a number of SIT flats at Redhill Close by 1955. Consisting a total of 21 pinkish seven-storey blocks designed with trapezoid roofs and curved-top facades, these flats will be torn down in a few years’ time due to the SERS program.

1956 – Strathmore and Dawson, Queenstown

The district of Strathmore and Dawson were formerly well-known as the Princess (Margaret) Estate, named after Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister. In 1956, the little estate made history when the tallest residential flat in Singapore was completed. The iconic 14-storey block was numbered 39 and named Forfar House, after a small Scottish town where Queen Elizabeth’s mother once lived. It was also popularly called chup si lau, or 14-storey, by the local Chinese.

Forfar House was surrounded by low-rise SIT flats otherwise known as si lau chu (four-storey house) or lam po lay (blue glass). This was due to the flats being only four storeys tall and fitted with blue windows. Princess Estate was the only neighbourhood in Queenstown fully completed by the SIT.

Aesthetically pleasant, Forfar House, however, had an unwanted reputation of being a suicide block, thus its other not-so-pleasant nickname was tiao lau (literally means “jumping from a high-rise building” in Hokkien). Many suicide victims ended their life from the highest storeys of this flat. After 1995, Forfar House was placed on the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) list and was subsequently demolished. In 2005, the 40-storey towers of Forfar Heights were built in place of the site where Forfar House once stood on, becoming the new landmark of Strathmore and Dawson.

1957 – Bukit Panjang

By the late fifties, SIT had been providing public housing for some thirty years, even though it was not up to the expectation. In 1957, it had extended its plan to as far as Bukit Panjang. Single-storey houses were built, and like many other SIT estates, there were metal railings fixed outside the houses for clothes-drying purposes.

1958 – Datoka Crescent

Datoka is a small peaceful neighbourhood located near the old Kallang Airport. Its name was derived from the United States’ transport airplane Datoka DC-3, which was being used intensively during the Second World War. In 1958, SIT built 14 block of brick-walled flats, not more than 10-storey tall, in this little housing estate that last until today.

1960 – Stirling Road, Queenstown

The sleepy neighbourhood at Stirling Road might not be prominent, but it has an important place in the history of Singapore’s public housing as it marked the transition of the SIT era to HDB era.

When SIT developed the satellite town of Queenstown, it built three blocks at Stirling Road, numbered 45, 48 and 49. They were only half finished when SIT was dissolved, and the task was handed over to HDB. The seven-storey flats were considered the first ever flats built by HDB when they were completed in 1960.

1960 – Aljunied Road

The successful model of the SIT flats at Kim Keat was duplicated at Aljunied, where it was one of SIT’s last housing projects before its handing over to HDB.

Housing and Development Board (HDB)

Early Objectives

In its first decade of operation, HDB raised the percentage of Singapore’s population living in public housing from 9% to 32%, supplying more than 100,000 units. The early projects in HDB’s second five-year plan (1960-1965) covered Telok Blangah, Rochor, Henderson, Outram, MacPherson, Serangoon and the Kallang Basin. The United Nations (UN) experts were invited to advice on the country’s urban renewal plan, which was targeted to accommodate a population of 4 million people. After Queenstown which was partially a SIT project, Toa Payoh became the first new town to be fully completed by HDB in 1968.

Lim Kim San

lim kim san, then minister for national developmentThe efficiency of HDB was led by Lim Kim San (1916-2006), HDB’s first chairman (1960-1963) and Singapore’s Minister for National Development (1963-1965), who was credited for his massive contribution to the public housing. The role to lead HDB as the new public housing provider was deemed a difficult one, but Lim Kim San volunteered for the position and did not get paid for his three years at HDB.

Shortly after his appointment in 1960, Lim Kim San silenced his critics by successfully completing 10,000 units within a year and resettling the victims of the Bukit Ho Swee Fire. In 1964, Lim Kim San also introduced the home ownership scheme, which the low income families could use a portion of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) to buy a flat.

1960 to 1967 – Tanglin Halt, Queenstown

One of the oldest housing estates in Singapore, Tanglin Halt has a common name known among the local Chinese as chup lau, which was derived from the ten-storey flats built here. The other estate with the same nickname of chup lau is at Circuit Road.

The blocks of flats were built by HDB between 1960 and 1967, and are now selected for the SERS program. Chup lau coexists with the low-rise SIT flats in the same neighbourhood (mentioned above), but unlike its preserved cousins, the fifty-plus-year-old ten-storey blocks will be likely to be demolished in 2013.

1961 – Bukit Ho Swee

The notorious Bukit Ho Swee Fire on 25 May 1961 destroyed thousands of attap houses at the squatter settlements of Bukit Ho Swee, leaving 15,000 people homeless. HDB, led by Lim Kim San, acted swiftly to build many low cost flats in just nine months, and 8,000 more units in the next four years, for the residents who had lost their homes. The remaining squatter settlement was destroyed in another fire in 1968. By then, Bukit Ho Swee estate had enough housing to accommodate the 3,000 homeless refugees.

The picture above shows the construction of 14 emergency flats used to house the residents in 1961. These low six-storey flats lasted for many years before they were eventually demolished to be replaced by the current batch of flats at Bukit Ho Swee.

1962 – East Coast Road

The four blocks of low-rise two-room flats are the only public housing left at East Coast Road. They are built in 1962, just two years after the establishment of HDB. In 2011, three blocks of East Coast Road flats, numbered 1 to 3, were selected for the SERS program and are expected to be torn down after 2015.

1962 to 1964 – Commonwealth Close

Three blocks of 16-storey flats stand on a little hill at Commonwealth Close. When they were built between 1962 and 1964, the blocks were prominent enough to be given a dialect nickname of chup lark lau (16-storey).

Block 81, in particular, was the most “important” block as it was used to showcase the success of Queenstown, Singapore’s first satellite town. Glamorous foreign visitors of the VIP flat included the United Kingdom’s royalties Prince Philip and Princess Alexandra, United States Vice President Spiro Agnew and Akihito, the Emperor of Japan.

1963 to 1980s – City

After the Second World War, Singapore’s population surged but a large percentage was still concentrated in the city area. Under HDB’s Urban Renewal Plan, many old shophouses were demolished in order for low-cost housing estates to be developed for the residents. Thus, even today, it is not uncommon to see HDB high-rise flats standing among other skyscrapers in a highly commercialised Central Business District (CBD).

The housing estates in the city area include Hong Lim Complex (Block 532-538), Chinatown Complex (Block 3-4, 333-335), Everton Park (Block 1-7), Tanjong Pagar Plaza (Block 1-8), Chin Swee Estate (Block 1-13, 32-34, 51-54), Waterloo Centre (Block 262-264), Bras Basah Complex (Block 232-233), Queen Street (Block 269-272), Rochor Centre (Block 1-4), Tekka Centre (Block 661-665), Kelantan Road (Block 25-31), Jalan Besar (Block 632-642) and Selegie House (Block 8-10).

Selegie House, in particular, was one of the tallest buildings in the early sixties. It was opened in 1963 during HDB’s second five-year plan (1960-1965). The three blocks, one 20-storey tall and the other two 10-storey tall, shared 505 housing units, 39 shops and a restaurant. The total cost was $3.8 million and could house as many as 4,000 residents in its two-room, three-room and four-room formats. Selegie House was one of HDB’s most successful low-cost flats, fitted with fast lifts, electricity, water and gas supplies. Phone lines and Rediffusion services were also installed. The units were mainly for rental, at a rate between $60 and $120 per month.

The iconic coloured flats of Rochor Centre, in bright striking colours of blue, green, red and yellow, were built by HDB in 1977. A popular place filled with shops selling ceremonial and religious items, beauty salons, hardware shops and a famous bak kut teh stall, the trademark flats, however, are scheduled to be torn down to make way for the construction of the new North-South Expressway in 2016.

Built in the early eighties, the two blocks of flats at the Bras Basah Complex, famous for its four storeys of shops selling books, art, music and literature, are one of HDB’s last public housing projects in the city area. In 2010, a 25-storey resale four-room unit was sold to a Taiwanese couple for $650,000, smashing the record for price per square feet.

The now-defunct Cantonment Road Estate at Tanjong Pagar had as many as 334 units in its two blocks of flats that were completed in only nine months. It was torn down in the early 2000s and replaced by the Pinnacle@Duxton. Other housing estates at city that were demolished were Victoria Street Estate, Ellenbough Estate (replaced by Central and Clarke Quay MRT), Outram Park and the old Lavender Street Estate.

1968 to 1971 – Toa Payoh

Toa Payoh is Singapore’s second satellite town after Queenstown, and was solely developed by HDB. One of the new designs explored by HDB was the point block design, which had to be made up of three-room to five-room units in order to be economically viable in the construction cost. The unique Y-shaped block, 19-storey tall, was one of the first of its kind when it was completed in the early seventies.

The success of the Y-shaped point block paved way for the construction of more point blocks in Toa Payoh, and the height was increased to 25-storey.

1970 to 1973 – Mei Ling/Mei Chin, Queenstown

The Mei Ling/Mei Chin estate of Queenstown was once a hilly area made up of farms, cemeteries and a large Hokkien village called Boh Beh Kang (No Tail River). The quiet neighbourhood scored two records for HDB in the seventies.

Blocks 160 and 161 were Singapore’s first point blocks built in 1970, while block 168A, completed in 1973, was the first residential flat to be specially designed. Unlike other rectangular blocks, it was styled with curvatures in a symmetrical way, thus a nickname of “Butterfly Block” was bestowed to it.

1971 to 1975 – Ang Mo Kio, Clementi and Bedok

In its fourth five-year plan between 1971 and 1975, HDB used the classic slab block design (three- to four-room units for blocks, and five-room units for point blocks) to duplicate for the new towns of Ang Mo Kio, Clementi and Bedok, targeted at the rising number of low-middle income families. A typical three-room unit cost as little as $10,000 in the early eighties.

Before the upgrading, the lifts in these 30-plus flats do not stop at every levels. Like the long common corridors that link different columns together, the lifts are only available at intervals of three to five storeys.

Each unit has a two-step doorway that leads to the common corridor, and windows made up of tempered glass and aluminum panes.

Void decks were added to the designs of HDB flats since 1970s. At the void decks, it is common to find facilities such as table tennis table, stone benches and round tables engraved with Chinese chess or international chess formats. As the estate ages, elderly corners are also set up in the void decks.

While the mama shops operate at the void decks, the likes of provision shops, barbers, hair salons, clinics and kopitiam are allocated on the ground floors of HDB blocks for their businesses. Heavily subsidised by HDB in the rental fees, these shops provide great convenience to the residents.

1973 – Zion Road

The cluster of blue flats at Zion Road are built in 1973, with the most prominent block being the large curved block of 92, situated at the bend of Zion Road and Havelock Road. The Zion Road flats, almost 40 years old now, will be demolished soon after being selected in the SERS program in 2006.

1973 – Sin Ming, Bishan

The new town of Bishan was first built in the early eighties, but Sin Ming estate was developed a decade earlier. Completed in 1973, the blocks, numbered 22 to 27, are initially planned as housing for the nearby industrial estates, which has now developed into a concentrated point for car repair workshops. The kopitiam at block 22 is famous for bak kut teh, zi char and duck rice.

1973 to 1976 – Marine Parade

Marine Parade is the oldest HDB housing estate to remain intact. So far, there are no demolition of old HDB blocks or addition of new ones. Located near East Coast Park, the estate, made up of 56 slab blocks and 17 point blocks, remain popular among the residents even after almost 40 years.

1974 – Farrer Road

At the “royal’ estate (made up of King’s Road, Queen’s Road, Empress Road, Duke’s Road) along Farrer Road, there are several blocks of HDB flats designed in a similar fashion as the SIT flats of Redhill Close (mentioned above). Built in 1974, the light blue coloured flats are much taller but have similar vertical protruding facades as balconies.

Built in 1975, the classic flats at Dover estate were declared for SERS in 2004. By late 2010, the once popular cosy neighbourhood turned into a ghost town after the last batch of residents had moved out. The flats were scheduled to be demolished in 2012.

1979 – Neo Tiew

Three low-rise HDB flats were built at tiny Neo Tiew in 1979 to accommodate the residents of Lim Chu Kang. The estate was abandoned in 2002 and is now used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for urban warfare exercises. Equipped with a wet market, shops and playgrounds, the same model was also duplicated at Seletar Road, near Jalan Kayu. It was en-bloc in 2005 and is now used as a foreign worker dormitory.

1981 – Ang Mo Kio

Unlike other classic flats in Ang Mo Kio, the white cylindrical flat numbered 259 located at the junction of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 and 2 is an early example of a HDB design and build project. The objective was to have a breakthrough in the traditional designs of a typical HDB flat of the eighties.

Made up of four cylindrical blocks, the 25-storey flat looks like a lucky four leaf clover from the top. It even has customised round water tanks installed on the rooftops to suit the design. Since its completion, the “four leaf clover” flat has become an unmistakable landmark of Ang Mo Kio.

1981 – Changi Village

When the British withdrew their presence in Singapore after 1971, HDB launched a Changi Village Development Project at this far eastern part of the island. By 1981, a small laid back neighbourhood with low-rise HDB flats, a popular hawker center and a little bus terminal were completed.

1983 to 1985 – Hougang

The batch of three-room and four-room flats along Hougang Avenue 7 were completed between 1983 and 1985. Many of them were reserved for the pig farmers that were relocated due to the development of Hougang. Over the years, block 316 becomes the iconic landmark with its giant painted rainbow on its facade.

It is not uncommon to find public flats in Hougang decorated with some colourful paintwork. Another example is the Welcome Block of number 25 at Hougang Avenue 3. Similarly, flats at Yishun have also colourful themes such as flowers, kites and sports.

1984 – Potong Pasir

The humble estate of Potong Pasir was first developed in 1982. Two years later, the first blocks of flats were completed. The most striking feature about Potong Pasir flats are their long sloping roofs. Nicknamed “Slides in the Sky”, they give a distinctive skyline as compared to other housing estates in Singapore. The flats are made up of three-, four- and five-room units, while the double-storey executive maisonettes are tucked just below the slanted roofs.

HDB Terrace Houses, Maisonettes and Penthouses

Other than the single-room to five-room units in slab block and point block designs, HDB also came up with other types of flats that are now considered uncommon.

The terrace houses built by SIT in the fifties were taken over by HDB, and would later become known as one of the few landed properties offered by HDB. Only three managed to survive till this day, including the clusters at Stirling Road, Jalan Bahagia and Upper Boon Keng Road. The terrace houses are classified in the same categories as HDB three-room and four-room flats and have the same 99-year lease.

Executive maisonettes are rare breed of HDB flats that come with double storeys, three bedrooms and an additional study room. HDB first built them in 1980 in new towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Clementi, Hougang, Yishun and Sembawang. Such model was discontinued after the introduction of Executive Condominium (EC) Housing Scheme in 1995.

Another unique design is the executive maisonette with a sky terrace (similar to penthouse). Located at the top of point blocks, such HDB executive maisonettes can be found at Bishan, Choa Chu Kang, Pasir Ris, Hougang, Sunset Way and Strathmore Avenue. In 2010, an executive maisonette in Bishan became a talking point when it was sold for $900,000, the highest ever transaction for a HDB flat.

The rarest of the HDB designs belongs to the multi-generation flats, with only seven such blocks being built in Bishan and Yishun in the late eighties. Two units are paired up side-by-side with a common door in between them. The purpose of multi-generation flats was to encourage the children to live beside their parents after their marriages.

Jurong Town Corporation (JTC)

Started in 1969, JTC was involved in building a small number of low-cost flats for residents working at Jurong (Taman Gardens, Teban Gardens, Pandan Gardens and Boon Lay Gardens) and Sembawang industrial estates. The aim was to create a cohesive environment in which the people could live and work. Jurong Hill Park was one of JTC’s recreation projects for its residents.

The management of the flats was handed over to HDB in 1982. Most of the flats were demolished in the mid-nineties and early 2000s, while only a handful survives, such as the blocks around Yung Ping Road and Yung Kuang Road. However, these JTC flats have been en-bloc and abandoned since 2011, and are likely to be demolished in near future to make way for new housing estate at Taman Jurong.

Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC)

HUDC Private Limited took on the task to provide public housing between 1974 and 1982 for the middle-income families. The flats they built were the largest among other flats, exceeding 100m2 in sizes. Like the JTC flats, HDB took over the management of HUDC flats in 1982. As the demand dwindled by the late eighties, HDB decided to phase out the building of HUDC flats in 1987.

It was not until 1995 when HDB announced the privatisation plans of HUDC flats. Gillman Heights (at the junction of Alexandra Road and Depot Road; replaced by The Interlace condominium), Pine Grove (off Ulu Pandan) and Ivory Heights (along Jurong Town Hall Road) were among the first HUDC estate to be privatised in the late nineties.

One of the most prominent HUDC flats in Singapore are the three tall brownish blocks at the Lakeview Estate at Upper Thomson Road.

Housing and Development Board (HDB)

1960s to 1980s – Political Goals

The ruling party PAP (People’s Action Party) enjoyed high support from the people from the sixties to the eighties. One of the factors was the success of HDB and their five-year plans, which provided continuous supply of low-cost affordable flats for the masses. Low-middle income families were able to rent, and later purchase, housing units at reasonable rates. The transition from living in kampong to flats had great impact to many people, as they could enjoy the convenience of having water, electricity and gas supplies at their finger tips. Young generations of that era were also encouraged to get married, have homes and start their own families.

1990s – Housing Bubble

In the nineties, HDB supplied the housing market with an average of 30,000 units per annum. It also stopped fixing the prices of new flats based on construction costs, and allowed the supply and demand forces to determine the prices of new and resale flats. This cost the prices of HDB flats to triple in five years, eventually peaking in late 1996. The Asian Currency Crisis of 1997 crashed the property market, causing prices of the flats to plunge as much as 55%.

2000s – Under Supply, Over Demand

Due to many unsold units in the early 2000s, HDB began to limit the supply to only 5,000 to 10,000 units per year. Build-to-Order (BTO) scheme was introduced, so that the construction of the flats would only proceed if 70% of the units were booked. On the other hand, the sudden influx of foreigners caused a rapid increase in the rental fees and the units’ “cash over valuation” (COV).

In a vicious cycle from 2003 to 2011, the prices of new and resale HDB flats had doubled or more. Many newly married couples found it extremely difficult to own their flat due to high pricing and long waiting time. The unhappiness and frustration of Singaporeans cost the ruling party votes in the General Election of 2011, where they won by their lowest ever margin.

HDB also introduced the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) in 2005. Pinnacle@Duxton was a success, with its excellent location and award-winning design. However, the prices of DBSS flats kept climbing. By the time Centrale 8 was launched in 2011 at Tampines, the eighth DBSS project, its asking price for a five-room unit was as high as $880,000. This caused a huge uproar from the public, and subsequently prompted the government to stop land sales for future DBSS projects. The Pasir Ris One of 2012 is expected to be the last DBSS flat to be built.

The Future

Will the prices of HDB flats breach $1 million in years to come? How will our future generations afford their homes? These are the questions to ponder.

For public housing affected by SERS, read Singapore En-bloc Flats.

Back to From Villages to Flats (Part 1) – The Kampong Days

Published: 11 May 2012

Updated: 19 May 2013

Updated: 08 October 2012

This entry was posted in Historic. Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to From Villages to Flats (Part 2) – Public Housing in Singapore

  1. Ron says:

    Thanks I love this blog

    It’s really informative for a history buff like me

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Great! I live in one of those executive maisonettes in the late 80s and has always been amazed at the space as compared to current blocks.

    Anyway, author, any idea which are the blocks that are maisonettes that are multi-generational?

  3. erwinrommel says:

    Excellent write up! Just wondering how much time you research on this before penning this article. It’s really a good read for potential house-buyers.

  4. James Tann says:

    Excellent writeup, congratulations.
    Just 1 point for correction in the section “1950 Princess Elizabeth Estate, Upper Bukit Timah”
    The photo used in that section is not of the Princess Elizabeth Estate at Upper Bukit Timah.
    The photo shows instead the Princess Elizabeth Estate that was built at the old race course road (Farrer Park) that was called the Princess Elizabeth Flats.
    The Princess Elizabeth Estate that was built in Upper Bukit Timah was called Princess Elizabeth Park. Yes, there were 2 developments by SIT generically called Princess Elizabeth Estates in commemoration of the royal wedding of 1947. This fact often led to the confusion about the 2 different P.E. Estates.
    More details of the Upper Bukit Timah SIT Estate can be found on my blog at this address. http://ijamestann.blogspot.com

  5. Another interesting trivia is that the flats on Christmas Island, known as the Kampong Flats, are built in accordance to Singapore Housing Board standards in the 1960s/70s. These three- and four-storey blocks are home to the Malay population on the island.


  6. Tim says:

    Hi, how about the old SIT flats near Silat Aveune/Kampong Bahru? I thought those are built in the 1960s or 1970s?

  7. Steven says:

    Ang Mo Kio those building u captured. It is emptied since last year Dec. As they are ask to move (en-bloc).

  8. cylee says:

    I love your blog. This is more useful than what the History textbook offers. Thank you for spending so much time to research on the details, and for going around taking all those photos.

  9. The HDB flats at Buffalo Road, Tekka Centre, have an interesting and unique feature, ie their lifts are exposed on the exterior

  10. xr400r says:

    Does anyone remember that the level of the flats was alphabetized and not numbered? Eg- #03-45 would be C45. #20-45 would be T45??

  11. Henry Lim says:

    SIT Flats, Kim Keat 1958 was where I lived. It was known as St Michael Estate, never as Kim Keat. The road shown in the picture was Jalan Tenteram.

  12. Peter Dunlop author "Street names of Singapore" says:

    Never forget that the SIT had a wider brief than did/does the HDB. It is remarkable that its buildings were of such quality and style that they have stood the test of time some for over 70 years

  13. I live in a far away place in Kelantan, Malaysia. We only have a few towers here, no flats more than 5 storeys. Some new hotels have more storeys. There is however one new 31-storey apartment tower coming up near where I live, which I think is unnecessary. Another tower of apt building will soon come up next to it. I think building high-rise buildings is infectious. I am against people living in high-rise buildings. It is ok if the room sizes are living spaces are the usual standards. I still think cluster homes and townhouses are better than flats. Clamping down on prices of homes is a community as well as governmental effort. I choked when I went through your pictures. The pictures are great though.

  14. Elodie Sng says:

    Hi, Just a question. The section where you talk about the SIT flats in Bt Panjang, was there any mention in your research of these single-storey SIT units being built in Teck Whye Estate? Thank you!

    • There might be some SIT flats at Teck Whye, but the National Archives isn’t so specific. It just states the flats were built at Bukit Panjang.
      Do you have any memories or knowledge of SIT flats at Teck Whye? Pls share :)

      • James Tann says:

        Before redevelopment by HDB, Jalan Teck Whye was a cul-de-sac that started beside the post office at Choa Chu Kang Road and ended at Bukit Panjang Govt High School. The SIT Teck Whye Estate was all single storey units located on both sides of Jalan Teck Whye. The photo in the section “Bukit Panjang” shows the SIT houses at Jalan Teck Whye. My grandparents lived at blk 17 Teck Whye Est.

  15. Here are some pictures of the old housing estates…

    Old Clementi 1970s

    Old Toa Payoh 1960s (with the unique Y-shaped block as mentioned above)


    Old Tampines 1980s

  16. Henry Lim says:

    “Princess Elizabeth Flats were demolished in 1978, to be replaced by what is known as Pek Kio now”.

    The flats were situated between Northumberland Road and Race Course Road. That plot of land is still vacant to-date.

  17. Old Geylang in the 1960s/70s (from kampongs to flats)





  18. Edward Lim says:

    Can someone please tell me which are the earliest HDB blocks built in the 1980s at Bukit Panjang estate, I am looking for someone who moved there from Sin Ming estate.

  19. Passerby says:

    Thanks for sharing the information on SIT flats at Silat/kampong bahru. I did not know they were scheduled for en-bloc as i notice there are dwellers still in teh flats. A shame they are ‘redeveloping’ the place. That place is pretty idyllic and almost like a small community of sorts.

  20. Demolition of flats at Queen’s Close in the late 80s…
    Anyone lived there previously?

  21. Marine Parade is the first housing estate to be built entirely on reclaimed lands. The reclamation started as early as 1966, using sand and earth from the hills at Bedok and Siglap…

  22. Changi Village in 1978

    Bedok New Town in 1982

  23. waikit says:

    How come nothing on Outram Park Estate? It was a major shopping hub in the 70s & 80s

  24. Teoalida says:

    I am admin of teoalida.com and I found your website since 11 May 2012 when I noticed visits on my website from your wp-admin panel. I see that you partially copied my former website, especially in the 1990s part… and you made several mistakes that were non-existent on my website.
    But good job anyway, you focus on HDB history and photos while my website focus on HDB floor plans and figures. I think that we should do a link exchange!

    Executive maisonettes are rare breed of HDB flats (…). Such model was discontinued after the introduction of Executive Condominium (EC) Housing Scheme in 1995.
    There is NO relation between Executive HDB and Executive Condominium. Executive Maisonettes are built in few numbers since 1993 and discontinued in 2000 probably due of stupid idea of household shelter. Executive Apartments were discontinued in 2004 (top date) due of 1997 crisis and large amount of unsold large flats. Executive Condominiums have flats of all sizes, all single floor except penthouses.

    HDB Penthouse Maisonettes can be found at (…) Sunset Way
    There is none.

    In a vicious cycle from 2003 to 2011, the prices of new and resale HDB flats had doubled or more.
    That vicious circle happened 1994-1996 because HDB decided prices based on market prices and vice-versa. Prices were constant from 1998 to 2006, a new growth started in 2007 due of undersupply.

    HDB also introduced the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) in 2005. Pinnacle@Duxton was a success, with its excellent location and award-winning design. However, the prices of DBSS flats kept climbing.
    Although not a clear mistake, but it leads to confusion. Pinnacle@Duxton is a Premium BTO launched one year before DBSS was announced.

    How do you found such old photos, especially of SIT blocks, and aerial photos? They are not even in National Archive website.
    You should also write about old Toa Payoh Block 79 as well as about the new blocks 79A-E which are the first HDB blocks with skygardens.

    • There’s a big difference between referencing and plagiarism, but it’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

      • Teoalida says:

        It’s OK, is not plagiarism… I just report that you made several mistakes while referencing from my website, and ask you for a link exchange.

    • Jonathan says:

      Actually if it is referencing you need to give credit to the original author unless you change the wording.
      But nonetheless, great work. without people like you, history will be in bits and pieces.

  25. First blocks of public flats at Kallang, 1962, two years after the establishment of HDB

  26. Everton Park Estate (mentioned in the article under City) was built in 1965. It originally belonged to the Harbour Board. The flats were renovated in 1979 and reallocated to the residents in 1980.

  27. Singapore’s first ever HUDC were the Lagoon View and Laguna Park at East Coast, built in 1975.
    The stripes of roads on the right side were the initial completion of ECP


    (Photo Credit: Joo Chiat A Living Legacy)

  28. born in the end 60s. says:

    Your compilations is super !!! More interesting than the old history book in the school.
    I once saw photos of changi village in the 60′s in 1994. Also saw historical photos about changi tallest tree and why it was chopped. * Due to Japan Army bombard Changi and taking the tall tree as a marker. British army ordered to chop down. ..and also there is a small chaplin in Changi airbase… do you have the story and pictures?

  29. born in the end 60s. says:

    Ha… I found it
    Changi Tree Sindora wallichii tree
    http://www.singaporecitygallery.sg/images/wmChangiPoint-Book.pdf

  30. The interior of a typical HDB flat in the late 1970s…

    I remember my old home used to have that TV set (with sliding doors) too! :)

  31. Tim says:

    Now we move up the Maslow hierarchy of needs. previously if I can recall condominiums are pretty few in the early 80s , as we just need a roof to stay and HDB flats suffice(probably due to the large pool of blue collar workers then). But as we move through the decades, there are getting more condominiums(and more people) and smaller size for housing.. So it has become the need(or want)for more ‘prestige’ (condominium) vs a smaller size of housing across board?

  32. Irvin says:

    Hi there, my grandparents used to live in the Princess Elizabeth Flats , No. 81 Race Course Road., Farrer Park. Your blog erroneously states that they were demolished in 1978, but I am sure they were around long after Mama and Ah Kong passed away in the early 1990s.

    • Hi, I took a look at the street directory of 1988, but there were no Block 81 nor Princess Elizabeth Flats
      The stretch beside the field was named Farrer Park Estate with 20 blocks (numbered 26 to 45) and a popular hawker centre… All these were also demolished by the late 1990s

      Today, it is an empty plot of land

      Anyway I will go search for an older street directory (1970s) and reconfirm again… Thanks for your feedback! :)

      • Irvin says:

        Hi there, you’re not wrong. Mama and Ah Kong’s flat was No. 81 which was in Block 45 on the ground floor, right at the corner. Those apartments were numbered such that they ran in sequence – the block numbers were useful to people who didn’t know where they lived (it was common at that time to omit the block number when giving your address as I note in my dad’s school report book and other documents received from govt depts).

  33. Two problems that vexed Singapore in 1961: Exploding population and lack of space… the same exact problems that we are facing today in 2010s
    http://newspapers.nl.sg/Digitised/Article/freepress19610816-1.2.72.aspx

    and looking at the “densely-populated” areas in Singapore then:
    Queenstown 60,000
    Chinatown 50,000
    Tiong Bahru 50,000
    Balestier 40,000
    Kallang 20,000
    Serangoon Gardens 15,000

    A far cry from today’s definition of “densely-populated”

  34. 4th HDB unit to be sold for more than $1m 8-O


    http://business.asiaone.com/news/property/rare-hdb-terrace-house-sold-102m

    Rare HDB terrace house sold for $1.02m

    A rare HDB corner terrace house in Whampoa commanded $1.02 million in April, exceeding the previous record-setter, a Bishan Street 13 maisonette, which was sold for $1.01 million in January.

    It is the fourth Housing Board resale unit to be sold for $1 million or more, the Singapore Real Estate Exchange (SRX) told The Straits Times. But property analysts emphasised that such record-breakers are rare exceptions to the norm.

    The latest, for example, is one of Singapore’s 285 “landed” public homes, located in Whampoa and Queenstown. They were built in the 1960s by HDB’s predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust. The million-dollar home, a 266sqm three-room house with a garden, has 59 years left on its 99-year lease. It was sold to a neighbour who lived in a smaller 92 sq m terrace house farther down the road, revealed PropNex senior vice-president Lim Yong Hock.

    Last September, a large executive apartment measuring 150 sq m at Mei Ling Street in Queenstown made HDB resale history when it was sold for $1 million. On its heels came the $1.01 million resale of the 163 sq m Bishan maisonette. In April, another maisonette, in Toh Yi Drive, fetched $1 million, SRX data showed.

  35. The iconic brown SIT flat at Short Street
    Built in 1956 and demolished in 2006… Now its site is an empty piece of land waiting to be redeveloped


    (Photo Source: http://www.facebook.com/KrisgageExploreAndTravel)

  36. First lighthouse atop HDB block


    The Straits Times
    Tuesday, Feb 04, 2014

    SINGAPORE – Retiree Kent Tiong enjoys an unobstructed view of the sea and Batam island from his breezy flat at Block 3, Marine Terrace. The clear line of sight is why his block, 25 storeys high, is set to be the first HDB block with a lighthouse on its roof, guiding ships along the Singapore Strait. It will replace a lighthouse on a 25-storey block of executive flats in nearby Lagoon View condominium, a curiosity in itself, given that lighthouses are typically built on the shore, rocky outcrops or buildings, and rarely on apartments.

    Singapore’s other lighthouses – Horsburgh, Raffles, Pulau Pisang, Sultan Shoal – are offshore.

    Besides being a navigational aid, the new lighthouse will monitor shipping and maritime activities, including vessel movements in anchorage and in the strait, as well as sea sports, the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) said in a tender document last month. Closed-circuit TV and electro-optic cameras, and radio communications equipment, will be installed. The lighthouse is expected to be completed in the third quarter of next year. No reason was given for the move.

    Mr Tiong, 70, who has lived on the 24th storey since the block was built in 1975, wondered why it was chosen when other blocks closer to Lagoon View were not. His neighbour, Mr Andrew Ng, 38, hoped the peace and quiet of their block will be maintained with the new landmark. The chairman of the Marine Parade Citizens Consultative Committee, Mr Chua Ee Chek, said: “We have been reassured by MPA that the beacon which has been around in Lagoon View for the past 20 to 30 years poses no health, noise or environmental hazards to the residents.”

    Residents on the highest 25th storey of Lagoon View’s Block 5000K told The Straits Times they have had no problems with the lighthouse on their roof.

    Maritime heritage lovers like Captain Frederick Francis of the Singapore Maritime Academy hope the Bedok Lighthouse will be preserved after it is taken down. “It’s to tell people there was a time when lighthouses aided ships in navigation,” he said. Mariners now rely more on the satellite-based Global Positioning System.

    The Bedok Lighthouse began beaming on Aug 9, 1978. At 76m above sea level with a range of 42km, it is one of a series of lighOH OKthouses on the mainland since 1855. The first, on Fort Canning Hill, where a replica still stands, had an elevation of 60m and was visible 30km away. In 1958, a lighthouse on Fullerton Building took over. At 48m above sea level, it could be seen up to 44.4km away. It is now displayed at HarbourFront Towers. In both cases, the changeover kept pace with Singapore’s development, in anticipation of taller buildings being built along the waterfront, obstructing the lighthouse’s sweep of light.

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