Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Smaller HDB flats: 10 years on……”Think small and put the buzz into Singapore”

Today’s article in the Straits Times, Shrinking HDB flats due to need to maximise land and to adapt got me wondering. Almost exactly 10 years ago, the same argument was employed by the government to justify smaller flats (see article below by Lydia Lim – “Think small and put the buzz into Singapore“). Back then, Singaporeans responded unambigiously – NO to smaller HDB flats.

There is little reason to believe Singaporeans feel any differently today.

All sorts of reasons were peddled by the government to justify smaller flats then and now – the most consistent one being smaller families. But 10 years ago, even more doubtful arguments were pursued – smaller flats would encourage people to go out more (not beyond their means I hope), we would be encouraged to “socialise” (that seems to have been a rip-roaring success), more land could be set aside for parks with smaller flats (building upwards anyone?) etc. None of the HDB’s reasons measured up. But this year, the reasons for smaller HDB flats, most recently revisited by the HDB CEO, appear to focus squarely on smaller families. The other reasons are largely absent the public discussion, as evinced from the mainstream media at least. Perhaps we really live in politically different times from 10 years ago. Or perhaps the HDB’s reasons just do not make sense to discerning Singaporeans.

By the HDB’s own admission, new HDB flats are only “slightly smaller” than older ones. But if this is so, why would any government withstand a barrage of public criticism just for a few square metres of space? Are Singaporeans really asking for an arm and leg? Are our requests a bridge too far for the HDB? If they are, I have yet to hear from anyone in the HDB or government why this is so.

Perhaps the government can be nudged to think counter-intuitively on this one. Whichever way one looks at it, making HDB flats smaller, no matter what the reason, takes away choices from millions of HDB-dwelling Singaporeans. While families may have grown smaller, the longstanding HDB policy of building smaller HDB flats will ensure Singaporean families remain small.

In real terms, what additional costs are incurred if a “slightly larger” (as opposed to “slightly smaller”) flat is offered to Singaporeans?  The costs of construction, when split among new HDB buyers ought to be very little when compared with the cost price of their flat. The construction challenge of a 35-storey flat instead of a 30-storey flat does not seem insurmountable. Parks will be spared for sure with taller flats. Perhaps most importantly, in the Singapore context at least, the prospects of an extra study table for the second child ought to jolt urban planners into designing policies that work for Singaporeans. Such a policy would make more sense rather a justification of HDB policy through the logic of similiar housing policies pursued London, San Francisco or Paris. Perhaps we really should not ape the West blindly!

The HDB has done a phenomenal job of housing Singaporeans. Its ability to influence the real estate marketplace in Singapore is equally phenomenal. With one change of policy, it can affect the lives (positively or negatively) of 80% of Singaporeans who live in public housing. Singaporeans want those extra few metres of space in their HDB flats. Our country is small enough as it is.  And there is nothing populist about giving Singaporeans more choices.


Think small and put the buzz into Singapore

17 May 2001

Lydia Lim / The Straits Times

HE SPOKE with passion — and at length — about how to make Singapore one of the great cities in the world to live in, comparable to places like San Francisco and Vancouver.

Mr Jonathon Sze, an engineer, was one of 13 people to speak at a public forum held to discuss the draft of the 2001 Concept Plan, which will guide Singapore’s physical development in the next decade.

He was brimming with ideas on how to make this country more vibrant, more attractive to foreign talent and, therefore, more competitive.

Why not have jetties along the Singapore River so that people can travel to and from their waterfront homes in boats, creating a new kind of “high society living”, he asked.

Why does Hongkong have a buzz but not Singapore? Well, because Hongkongers live close to their places of work, leisure and learning, he said, answering his own question. So after work, they head home for a shower, then head out again.

They are “motivated to socialise”, he said.

In contrast, Singaporeans spend up to an hour commuting and are so knackered by the time they reach their doorsteps, they don’t want to step out again, he added, concluding that this is where Hongkong has a competitive advantage.

At the end of his extended presentation, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, who was chairing the forum, said with a smile: “I can’t disagree with any of the points you’ve made.

“I just want to add one point though. Maybe it’s because Hongkongers’ flats are smaller than Singaporeans’ that they spend more time outdoors,” he said, to much laughter from the 300-strong crowd.

Of all the points raised at last Friday’s dialogue, I found this last comment by the minister the most telling.

It said to me that flat size is an issue that is still on the minds of Singapore’s leaders and urban planners. And rightly so.

With so little land to be shared among so many competing uses, housing density — that is the number of housing units on a given piece of land — is a key issue in urban planning.

In September last year, The Straits Times published a front-page article that was headlined “Get set for smaller homes in future”.

It quoted Mr Mah as saying that with shrinking family sizes, it was “only logical” to build smaller homes. However, it would be difficult to get people to accept the idea.

“Human nature being such, I think we still want to have same-size houses even though the sizes of households are getting smaller,” he said in last year’s interview.

“So it does not follow that we will be able to reduce the house sizes too much, but I think over time, this has got to be the trend,” he added.

The article was reprinted in the Chinese and Malay newspapers and set off a feedback frenzy.

Many people called the Housing Board and the URA to register their unhappiness with any plans to reduce flat sizes.

Smaller flats emerged as the top housing issue last year, prompting the most number of responses to the Feedback Unit.

The issue also sparked a heated exchange on the Straits Times Interactive (STI) website, where 200 people posted their views.

Most who called or wrote to the various government departments and the STI were strongly opposed to the idea. Some felt it contradicted the Government’s push to encourage Singaporeans to have more babies. Others railed against the unfairness of shrinking HDB flats that kept ballooning in price.

Much of the unhappiness was due to a misunderstanding of what the minister had in mind.

Mr Mah was not announcing HDB’s plans to shrink flats.

He was merely pointing out that if the average size of a Singapore household falls from four to three, which it is expected to do with rising affluence, then it only makes sense to build smaller homes so that more land can be set aside for parks and other uses.

I agree.

I am not suggesting that in the future, all families — regardless of size — be squeezed into the equivalent of a three-room flat. Neither was the minister.

What I am suggesting is that both public and private sectors build smaller homes to cater to the growing number of couples with no children, and singles. This will allow us to house a bigger population, yet preserve the greenery, old buildings and neighbourhoods precious to so many Singaporeans.

To make the idea more palatable, I suggest a name change for HDB homes.

Instead of labelling flats as either five- or four-room, thus bringing with it the attendant associations of first and second class, why not market public housing like private condominiums?

Flats could be named after the precinct they are in, such as Sengkang Cove or Punggol Point. This would go hand-in-hand with the HDB’s pilot build-to-order scheme, which invites flat-buyers to choose flats in specific locations.

The price, of course, would still depend on the size of the individual unit.

I think this would go a long way to assuage the angst against smaller flats, which I believe is due more to material aspirations than any crying need for bigger living spaces.

After all, the average working adult spends very little time at home, as work is likely to swallow up two-thirds of his day.

I think the minister may be right to suggest that if homes become smaller, Singaporeans will change their lifestyles accordingly.

In a recent article, architect and planning consultant Robert Powell argued that old Chinatown enjoyed a vibrant street life because people’s homes were smaller, and so they tended to go out more, transforming the street into “a communal living room”.

My memory does not stretch that far back, but I do recall visiting a friend, a Japanese girl, who lived in the heart of Paris with her family.

Their flat was tiny, her bedroom so cramped that she had no space for a bed. She slept on the floor on a mattress, which she pushed against the wall during the day so that she would have more room to move around.

Yet, I don’t think the size of her flat compromised her quality of life in any way.

On the contrary, she thrived in Paris, a city she knew as well as the back of her hand.

She showed me where to get a top-class panorama of the city, not the Eiffel Tower, but the roof of a shopping centre called the Samaritaine; where to head for the definitive display of Monet’s water lilies, and what to look out for when visiting Notre Dame Cathedral, whose facade she described as “perfect”.

From her, I learnt that it’s not the size of one’s flat that matters but the broadness of one’s mind.

Smaller flats will take some getting used to. But, instead of bemoaning the lack of space, which good design and clever layout can go a long way to compensate, why not look forward to less time spent cleaning up at home, and more time spent meeting and mingling with others, or indulging in a whole range of sports and other leisure activities?

Let’s not close our minds to the idea that smaller flats may mean bigger buzz and broader horizons.


Useful link

BBC: Architects say new houses are ‘shameful shoebox homes’ –

Written by singapore 2025

26/11/2011 at 11:37 am

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