by Mason Krohn
This year’s breakout romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, depicts the upper echelons of Singapore with imagery of immense fortune and extravagance. For the most part, their portrayal of the Singaporean elite is true to the country’s density of wealth and billionaires. In fact, one in 34 people in Singapore are millionaires, making the miniscule Southeast Asian nation the sixth most millionaire-dense country in the world. Many credit this preeminence to factors that attract wealthy immigrants including Singapore’s low tax rate and well-regulated banking system. Yet, for all their luxury, 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing, a policy typically utilized to serve low-income populations in the US. From the American standpoint, it is unusual that this program exists in the land of millionaires when affordable housing is an indicator of the stark inequality in the United States. Alas, the proliferation of government-built domiciles in Singapore is a product of efficient governance, and it has become a tool by which the state engineers social policy.
The climb of public housing began directly after Singapore’s independence from British rule. In 1959, just two years after Malaysia gained freedom from the United Kingdom, only 9% of Singaporeans resided in public housing. In 1960, the state formed its Housing & Development Board (HDB), which was originally intended to house poor residents, but eventually shifted to supply homes to the masses. The Bukit Ho Swee Fire in 1961, which burned down a squatter settlement and left 16,000 homeless, was the impetus for widespread support for housing initiatives. The government responded quickly to the housing crisis by completely rehousing all of the victims within a year. By 1965, the HDB constructed more than 51,000 apartments, thereby providing housing for a fourth of the country’s population. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, heralded the HDB’s initiatives and led the way for the nation’s housing expansion. The government steadily acquired an increasing amount of property to support its developments, and it now holds 90% of Singapore’s territory. Alongside gargantuan subsidies totalling S$1.19 billion in 2017, HDB lures homeowners by allowing them to pay for housing with the Central Provident Fund, which is a mandatory savings plan wherein working Singaporeans must set aside a portion of their salary for retirement, home ownership, insurance, and education costs. The planning and administrative work that allows the HDB’s programs to function epitomizes Singapore’s effective policy, but the feat of housing the majority of the population is not the only quality that sets this program apart; it is also their orchestration of deciding who lives where that makes Singapore seem like science fiction.
Early in Singapore’s existence as an independent nation, racial tension was at its peak. Under the colonial system, communities were largely segregated by ethnicity, leading to many clashes between the Chinese majority and Malay minority. On July 21, 1964, a racial dispute devolved into rioting when a procession of 20,000 Malay Muslims gathered to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Chinese agitators interrupted the celebration, causing widespread violence. Post-independence Singapore sought to reframe their societal structures by prioritizing multiculturalism, thereby dissuading racial conflict. S. Rajartnam, Minister for Culture from 1959 to 1965 stated that “we start with the irrefutable proposition that the alternative to multi-racialism… is genocide in varying degrees.” The HDB was the frontrunner in designing and enforcing this proposed multiculturalism with its Ethnic Integration Policy. Simply put, Singapore categorizes its ethnic makeup into four primary groups: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others. Within public housing units, the HDB attempts to model the racial makeup of the entire country by establishing quotas for the amount of each ethnic group for every neighborhood. Consequently, every community is a racial microcosm of the country as a whole, eliminating what Singapore’s government sees as potentially harmful ethnic enclaves. Singaporeans still have a choice in the level of quality of their abodes, since they apply for different classes of housing. However, they must apply for housing through the HDB, submitting to their racial sorting. The question becomes: does the HDB overstep its boundaries by controlling this aspect of Singaporeans lives? They justify that “a culture is formed not through piecemeal incidents, but through regular encounters and interactions.” Yet, what remains of the cultures of communities with common ethnicities?
City planners and sociologists have long debated the preservation or dissolution of racial enclaves, but a variance in research has resulted in opposing conclusions. There are two frameworks to evaluate the effectiveness of racial distributions: economic success of communities and social flourishment. In regards to economic achievement, New York’s Chinatown serves as an example in favor of enclaves. The neighborhood benefits from an interconnected economy in which money circulates and multiplies, attributing to reinvestment patterns that lower unemployment. Nevertheless, the enclave of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles presents lower wages for immigrants than those who leave the city, pointing to competition in common laboral fields. In regards to social cohesion, Singapore credits the reduction of racial violence to forced integration that maximizes interaction, but their claim is difficult to substantiate. On the other hand, enclaves have produced some of the most profound cultural blossomings in history; take, for example, the Harlem Renaissance. In the end, social policy is predominantly guesswork, but the HDB remains steadfast in its belief that Singapore’s public housing structure is the future for the developed world.
Born out of widespread violence and disastrous shortages, Singapore’s public housing now proves to be one of the most astounding metropolitan projects in the world. It remains unclear whether or not other nations can replicate this infrastructure and its associated racial quotas or even should try for these policies. However, the world is watching as the HDB builds into the sky, and Singapore crafts a crazy rich, multicultural, and harmonious society.