From shelter to home:
Meeting the changing housing needs of Singaporeans

Agency Design Singapore
11 min readApr 7, 2023


Part two of a podcast series on re-designing the meaning of home in Singapore

The following is a transcript of the second episode in Agency’s podcast series, where members of the Agency team talk about the topics that are particularly meaningful to us. In this episode, Josh Yeo talks about the history of public housing in Singapore, and how it has been experienced by different generations of Singaporeans.

Please click here if you’d rather listen; otherwise, read on!

In our last episode, Agency found a home. We spoke about our team’s move into a new office that we now call our home, and how as individuals, we responded to the newly found pride, ownership and opportunity that the space provided for us. Our needs as an organisation and as individuals were addressed with our new home. This left us reflecting on the idea of home more broadly, and how over the course of the 77 years of Singapore’s development as a nation, what home means for Singaporeans has slowly changed, and continues to evolve.

The road to better housing in Singapore began at the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 and took more concrete shape with the 1958 Master Plan, before finally arriving at the establishment of public housing by the Housing Development Board (HDB) in the 1960s.

Setting the Scene

In the kampung you will see coconut trees and fruit trees — rambutan trees and papaya trees. As you walk up the dirt track you will see graves in the area, ponds where they rear fish, and pigs wallowing in mud pools.
I remember clearly that those people who cook do it in the outhouse, or an extension of the house.

John lived in a terraced house built by the SIT (the Singapore Improvement Trust — the precursor to the HDB) at Redhill Close, with at least 8 other family members residing in one home. There was an open space to play and a kampung nearby to explore. (Kampung in the Malay language is a term for village, varying in material and architectural characteristics. In Singapore, many of these kampungs were makeshift wooden houses, clustered together in small communities.)

In the 1940s, the SIT embarked on their public housing efforts at a time when food, resources and shelter were lacking. They built a few housing projects that took into consideration the occupants’ sanitation, health and safety. However, it was not widespread and there were many people still living in kampungs.

The limited housing options often saw Singaporeans living in kampungs or multi-family rented accommodations.

In those kampung areas and even in Chinatown, there were a lot of people in one unit. TB (tuberculosis) was a big problem in those days. When anybody got TB, everybody got TB. (Jessica)

Jessica and her sister in the kitchen of their family’s apartment in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru district.

Now 65 years old, Jessica grew up in a SIT-built, 3-bedroom Tiong Bahru apartment in the 1950s. Her third aunt was the main tenant of her home. Jessica and her parents lived in one of the rooms while the two other rooms were sublet to other tenants. Overcrowding was the norm in those days, and it was not uncommon to see more than one family unit living in an apartment.

To maximise the rental of the three bedrooms, she [my aunt] stayed in a narrow space under the staircase, and at night she would just go there and sleep on a bed placed there.” (Jessica)

Modern sanitation was not widely available, and these houses ran on a manual sewage disposal system called the night soil collectors.

Even homes that were built with concrete were using this night soil collection system. In the morning when it was still dark, the night soil collectors will come by. Toilets had a ‘night soil bucket’, accessible from a space that opens up to the outside. (The collectors) would replace the dirty buckets with clean, fresh, properly sanitised ones, and carry the dirty buckets back to their vehicle. (Jessica)

John and Jessica’s experiences reflected the urgent needs of Singaporeans at that time: sanitation, safety, protection from disease — all serious, life-or-death issues.

The Shaping of Singapore’s Housing Landscape

Jessica and her third aunt in the playground of their Tiong Bahru SIT flat

Looking to address the needs of Singaporeans through land use planning at the national level, Singapore’s Master Plan was drafted in 1958. This plan detailed zones of industrial areas, nature reserves and residential clusters. Influenced by the UK’s public housing system in the early 1960s, the Housing Development Board (HDB) began offering Singaporeans relocation into newly built public housing.

People were excited to go and view the show flats and get a home, a place to stay that was so clean compared to their old ones. (Jessica)

The housing landscape in Singapore began to change. As time progressed, more Singaporeans were living in these newly built HDB flats, with modern sanitation, electricity and running water. The residents of Singapore were more than just willing to adopt the changes that were being offered — they welcomed these changes with open arms.

A lot of people had already moved out. I was still in primary 6 when it came time for us to move into a more concentrated populated area. Queenstown — where we moved to — had a lot of flats already built and occupied.” (John)

Normalisation of Home Ownership

Not long after the first public housing efforts by the HDB, it began steering away from the model set by the British system of council housing. Rather than just renting flats, the HDB started to sell flats to Singaporeans at highly subsidised prices. Thanks to this development, by the 1970s, home ownership had become attainable to many Singaporeans, and most were on their way to home ownership.

Jessica posing with a tree outside her father’s first owned HDB flat in Queenstown

In June of 1978, John and Jessica were getting married. Looking to build their future together, they never even considered renting a home. Their only thought was to purchase their own home, one that made sense given their means.

Jessica: We felt we needed to buy a place of our own eventually.

John: Our prime consideration was to be near our parents.

Jessica: We got married in June 1978, and we received a letter asking if we would be willing to buy a Jurong Town Corporation balance flat. We were happy to view the unit, and eventually bought it.

John and Jessica hosting a family gathering at their first owned HDB flat

Since the seventies, home ownership has become the norm for young couples looking to build a future together, and the thrill of looking for a new home and seeing its potential has not changed. Upon her engagement in 2021, Suhuan started looking to purchase a home.

With every space [we checked out], we saw potential. We researched the spaces, and also explored each of the neighbourhoods. Where does the flat look into, what interior designs are possible, what’s in the immediate surrounding area…” (Suhuan)

For potential home owners in Singapore, there is a familiar unofficial process — a ritual of sorts, that comes with the prospect of marriage.

Typically when people decide to get a BTO (built-to-order flat), people talk about it like a (marriage) proposal story. Like, “oh! who asked?” (Suhuan)

Today, home ownership is celebrated in Singapore, with 80% of Singapore’s residents calling HDB flats their home, with a large majority owning their flats. The public housing initiatives have successfully tackled the housing crisis of the 1940s and addressed the very urgent need for shelter, sanitation and safety. Singaporeans recognised the severe consequences that could have arisen if these issues were not addressed, and played active roles in the adoption and celebration of the island’s public housing initiatives.

The Added Complexity Of A Diverse Population

Designing the Singapore public housing system was a huge task — one made more challenging by the need to create equal opportunities and social cohesion in a young, multiethnic nation. In the 1940s, the end of World War II and Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia saw an influx of migrants into Singapore. By the 1960s, the people who called themselves Singaporean were from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Through the 1960s, there were race-based civil disturbances, threatening the safety and stability of the young nation. In building a new nation and providing for its residents, Singapore’s leaders needed to ensure that people in the multiethnic society were provided opportunity regardless of their ethnic background.

The ownership of HDB flats provided Singaporeans with an opportunity to own a stake in the nation’s growth and stability. Policies surrounding the HDB flats also encouraged harmony within Singapore’s multiethnic population. Chief among these policies is the quota system, which aims to ensure appropriate representation from key ethnic groups in every public housing building.

Fostering racial harmony among Singaporeans from different cultures and backgrounds was crucial in creating and fostering a peaceful and stable nation. Now, Singaporeans of all ethnic backgrounds call their HDB flats their homes and live, for the most part, in peace and harmony with their neighbours.

The HDB’s Recognition of Evolving Needs

With urgent needs around shelter, sanitation and even ethnic harmony taken care of, there has been a shift in behaviour around Singapore’s public housing system. Increasingly, Singaporeans do not seem to want to purchase HDB housing units in existing estates. The HDB reported an overstock in their supply, and they have had to react quickly to resident’s changing needs and preferences.

A few years ago we saw in the paper that HDB ended up with an overstock of flats. Flats have been built and are ready, but nobody is taking them. The current model, the built-to-order (BTO) model, means HDB will not build until there are people committed to buying. In our day, it was the other way around, we applied for a flat and when the flats are ready we will go in for a balloting to determine the unit we will get. (John)

As time progressed, Singapore has moved from a developing nation into a developed, safe and clean city. Our needs have also begun to shift. By the time John and Jessica were married, fewer Singaporeans were lacking in basic necessities like food, sanitation and safety. Instead, they began looking into considerations such as proximity to facilities and future value when looking into purchasing their homes. These considerations have influenced decisions made regarding housing and ownership.

In the early 2000s, new needs began to surface. Individuals unserved by the housing policies came to the public’s attention, house prices began inflating, and restrictions on housing ownership and its impacts on social cohesion were being questioned and reassessed. To address these rising concerns, the HDB announced new eligibility criteria and schemes to include previously underserved groups of Singaporeans. Additionally, the BTO system was introduced, limits placed on the number of public housing units an individual could own, and stamp duties and taxes were put in place.

Singapore’s leaders have pretty successfully reacted to the changing needs of people and society through responsive and forward-thinking policymaking.

What Lies Ahead: A Further Diversification of Needs

The ability to successfully implement a public housing system requires the clear demonstration of its benefits to the end-user. In the beginning, a lack of sanitation, shelter and safety had dire impacts on mortality and safety. it was clear that residents would stand to benefit from the changes that public housing entailed. However, today, various challenges with the public housing system may be a result of changes in the perspectives of the Singaporean people.

Suhuan had the opportunity to purchase various public housing units. In the end, she chose to buy an existing, pre-occupied unit rather than waiting for a new BTO to be built.

Majority of young Singaporeans live with our parents until later stages of our lives. It’s different from when our parents were growing up — they left home much earlier. Now we stay with our parents for much longer, with fewer years of freedom. We also have more options now, and it’s quite apparent that things have changed.

It’s no longer about what is very tangible and apparent like housing, health and food. We have moved on from there and look for something that’s more intangible.” (Suhuan)

Not all these responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the housing development board. Stakeholders in Singapore’s growth might also benefit from addressing these needs, by supporting the nurturing of our largest natural resource: human resource. Singapore’s landscape has begun to change. Singaporeans are not experiencing the immediate need for shelter, sanitation and safety. The definition of what defines a need has begun to diversify. It is no longer restricted the dire consequences of health and population safety, but it takes its form in the individual’s experience.

As Singapore has developed, we have basic needs met so we no longer worry about them. I can see it in myself: I no longer just look at shelter or food. But I think about the space and how I want to see myself living in my home, which would have been a luxury decades ago.

Some of these things are symptoms of deeper needs, that have a chance to surface only when the basic needs are met. These more emotional factors increasingly shape the decisions that people make about housing.” (Suhuan)

Perhaps through the experience of people whose underlying needs are not served by the public housing system, we might identify new areas of need, and create avenues to design new solutions that don’t just address what is now seen as a basic need. Amid the majority of Singaporeans that have ownership of their homes, there are still Singaporean citizens who do not own their own HDB apartments, but have found ways to meet their diverse sets of needs.

Darren, one of Agency’s communications designers, is one of these individuals. He grew up outside the public housing system. Since he was in primary school, Darren has experienced moving from home to home in rental housing. The longest he called an apartment his home was five years. He does not speak of his experience as being one that lacks the basic needs of food and shelter. Darren’s experience sheds light into new, complex areas of need.

In our next episode, Darren shares his experience as he uncovers the changing diversity of needs beyond what is basic. He speaks to others whose needs are not served by public housing in Singapore, and explores what those needs are, beyond shelter, sanitation and safety.