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Learning from an Asian tiger

The newly launched social housing plan in Pakistan can have a profound impact on the lives of Pakistanis. Here is how...

Learning from an Asian tiger
Private housing in Karachi.

Social housing is getting major attention in Pakistan and rightly so. A well thought-out social housing programme that is properly implemented and rigorously supervised can have a profound impact on Pakistani society, as well as spur major economic activity.

On a fundamental level, social housing provides an economic safety net for citizens and can be a major influence in developing an inclusive and cohesive society. At its core, social housing should be an asset creation opportunity for deserving citizens. In a country like Pakistan, it is paramount that government should never let the social housing projects become an investment opportunity for the wealthy and corrupt to park capital.

Singapore’s social housing programme is one of the most positively talked about social housing programmes. It is considered a phenomenal success as 80 percent of citizens live in housing developed by the Housing Development Board (responsible for social housing in Singapore) with an impressive 90 percent ownership rate.

Fitness area (above) and children play area (top) in an HDB Project.

Fitness area (above) and children play area (top) in an HDB Project.

The Housing Development Board (HDB) was formed in 1960 as the government of Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew decided to provide better living standards to citizens by developing the squatter and slums areas, and resettle residents into low-cost housing buildings developed by the state.

The incredible success of Singapore’s social housing is primarily due to three major reasons: an inclusive and integrated social housing for every citizen, utilising skills and capital from the private sector and rigorous policy development, implementation and supervision by the government. Singapore has continued to evolve and improve its social housing over the six decades since its launch.

The newly launched social housing plan in Pakistan can adopt relevant policies and best practices from Singapore’s housing programme. Pakistan can learn and benefit from Singapore’s experience in social housing.

Let’s look at the major policies and best practices that make Singapore’s social housing so incredibly successful and popular.

Asset creation and universal homeownership

In order to ensure home ownership across the society and avoid social housing becoming just an investment for parking funds or speculation, Singapore has put in certain restrictions. First, the housing units cannot be sold or rented out for a period of 5 years (in Pakistan’s case it can be kept at 10 years for the next few decades).

The selling and renting restrictions are applicable to both new units allocated by the government or bought from the secondary market.

Secondly, a family can only own one housing unit. Adults of the family will be entitled to apply for their own unit once they are 35 years of age or married. For Pakistan it should be customised, say 30 years or married (whichever comes later).

On a fundamental level, social housing provides an economic safety net for citizens and can be a major influence in developing an inclusive and cohesive society. At its core, social housing should be an asset creation opportunity for deserving citizens. In a country like Pakistan, it is paramount that government should never let the social housing projects become an investment opportunity for the wealthy and corrupt to park capital.

In Pakistan’s case, the government should exclude people who already own property or earn above a certain threshold (e.g. PKR 150,000/- per month). The earning thresholds should be increased once the government has accommodated the most in need and is in a position to expand the programme.

Social and racial harmony

Singapore has ensured that its attempt to build and promote racial harmony is reflected in its social housing policy. Singapore government uncompromisingly ensures that each social housing building (even the floors) and the cluster has a requisite mix (percentage) of all major Singaporean races (Chinese, Malay, and Indians) residing side by side.

In Pakistan, social housing can ensure that a minimum of 20 percent to 40 percent (depending on a city or town) is compulsorily allocated to a mix of religious, cultural and ethnic minorities e.g. a social housing project in Karachi should have 40 per cent allocation for a mix of Christian, Hindus, Parsis, Bohris, Ismailis, Ahmadis and Karachi born Pashtuns, Baloch, etc. This will ensure that social housing doesn’t become segregated and isolated enclaves within cities.

Inclusion and accommodation

One of the most beautiful aspects of Singapore’ social housing is that people from different economic strata, from blue-collar workers, small shop owners to highly educated couples, live comfortably in the same social housing unit.

The phenomenal statistics that 80 percent Singaporeans live in social housing is a testament to the fact that Singapore social housing has always been for every deserving citizen, from the lower economic strata to the educated middle-classes.

For certain sections of society, especially the very economically vulnerable and aged, owning social housing units might not be feasible. So the Singaporean government manages a dedicated stock of subsidised rental units in social housing projects to accommodate such people e.g. women with children who are widowed/ divorced and old childless couples who are economically vulnerable.

Integration 

Social housing projects in Singapore are not confined to certain areas but are spread throughout the city in every district and neighbourhood, from the central business district and coastal belts to suburbs. You can easily notice social housing projects next to luxury condo apartments in Singapore.Image 2 Children Play Area in a HDB Project

Pakistan must adopt the same approach to social housing. Otherwise, it is easy to turn them into ghettos for poor people, disconnected from economic activity due to distance from the city or business hubs.

The government also needs to think about the ‘compulsory land acquisition’ law that allows it to purchase or re-take land within cities for social housing development. Without such a law, it will not be able to scale up its programmes and provide social housing to a large number of people.

Another wonderful aspect of social housing in Singapore is that every project or building cluster is planned as a self-contained holistic neighbourhood. What it means is that social housing /HDB buildings have integrated green spaces (garden, green terraces on top or middle floors), children’s play and fitness areas and shops for lease in each project for a grocery, a tuition centre, a tailor, and eateries, etc.

Rigorous policy development, implementation and supervision

Singapore’s successful and much loved social housing is primarily possible because the government (Housing Development Board) is uncompromising about policy development (including design philosophy and standards), transparency in implementation and very rigorous in supervision.

Over the years the Singaporean government has increased the involvement of the private sector in social housing projects especially for architecture, construction and property maintenance services to benefit from the private sector’s capabilities. The Housing Development Board continues to be responsible for managing the allotment process in a transparent manner, supervising construction and property management.

Another practical feature of social housing in Singapore is the standardisation of building design features. Social housing projects and units have similar designs, standard features and consistent quality. Moreover, the implementation and supervision become easier and the construction becomes more efficient.

By incorporating these features, the Pakistan government can make the social housing programme a success and use it as a foundation to bring significant economic and social improvements in the lives of Pakistanis. It will also enable the programme to be inclusive (suitable for different economic strata), accommodating (widows, single mothers, old people), holistic (fitness, play areas, green spaces, retail areas) and racially and ethnically harmonious.

Saleem Lalani

One comment

  • Interesting article. Would have been more helpful if it told us how Singapore paid for the scheme, and how you will get Pakistanis to pay for it. Good luck with the latter! Incidentally, how much of its GDP does Singapore spend on defense?

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