Renowned architect and housing policy expert Professor Tay Kheng Soon has expressed concern over Singapore’s public housing policies, which he believes have trapped the government and its citizens in a no-solution problem.
Speaking at a town hall meeting organised by “Workers Made Possible” on 9 April, Prof. Tay noted that public housing in Singapore was once a crowning achievement, providing affordable homes to many Singaporeans.
However, he believes that the government’s decision to sell the idea of asset enhancement to the public has resulted in a weakened society and a housing problem that has no solution.
“The greatest mistake that was made by the government was to sell the idea to people, to the population, about asset enhancement,” said Prof Tay. “That is really an opiate in which people got drugged. And in the process has weakened the entire society.”
Under former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (1990–2004), asset enhancement schemes were introduced to renew ageing HDB estates, leading to a marked increase in prices of both BTO flats and resale flats.
Some have suggested that this was a strategy to entice Singaporeans to vote for the ruling party in exchange for the enhancement of their HDB flat prices and out of fear that prices would drop if there was a change in government.
According to Prof Tay, the government’s decision to promote public housing as an asset has resulted in three interrelated problems.
Firstly, the government has trapped itself in a situation where the affordability and asset value of Housing Development Board (HDB) flats cannot go up, resulting in a deterioration of value over time.
Secondly, many Singaporeans have all their life savings tied up in their flats and are hoping to recover their investment when they retire or downsize, but are likely to suffer a loss in price recovery.
Finally, young people who are entering the property market are trapped in a debt cycle and cannot risk entrepreneurial ventures because they have to pay off their mortgages.
Prof Tay believes that the current situation is worrying for the government, which fears that retirees will be angry that they cannot recover the full value of their property and may vote against the government. Additionally, young people are not able to exercise their entrepreneurial spirit and cannot be relied upon to drive Singapore’s economy forward.
Despite the government’s attempts to address the affordability and accessibility of public housing, Prof Tay believes that a third sector, sustainability, is missing from the discussion. “I’m not talking about environmental sustainability. I am talking about the survivability of Singapore,” he said.
In order to address these issues at a structural level, Prof. Tay suggested that every citizen in Singapore should demand a citizen dividend, given that the government has creamed off the asset value of public housing and invested the funds into reserves.
“It is impossible to calculate what that dividend will be because we do not know what is the total amount of asset that has been salted away,” he said.
“But whatever it is, that is a demand that is a necessity. That is what makes citizenship meaningful.”
In his speech, Prof Tay also touched on his other passions, including Rubanization and alternative models of human settlement, as well as his efforts to revive the scouts and start kampong economies.
Prof Tay also discussed the impact of the government’s approach to housing on Singapore’s society and economy.
He argued that by treating public housing as assets, the government has weakened the social fabric of Singapore. As people focus on the value of their homes, they become less connected to their communities and less invested in the well-being of their neighbors.
He said, “The society has become atomized. There is no sense of community.”
Prof Tay also noted that the government’s emphasis on asset enhancement has distorted the economy, as resources are diverted away from more productive investments. He said, “We are now a nation of property agents. All we do is buy and sell property. We have forgotten how to create real value.”
In addition, he highlighted the impact of the government’s housing policies on Singapore’s younger generation. With many young people burdened by large mortgage debts, they are unable to take risks and pursue entrepreneurial ventures. This, in turn, stifles innovation and limits Singapore’s potential for growth. Kheng Soon said, “Young people are irrelevant not only because of numbers but because they are in a debt trap.”
Prof Tay concluded his speech by urging the government to take a more holistic approach to housing policy.
He argued that housing should be viewed as a social good, not as an asset, and that the government should prioritize sustainability over short-term gains.
Prof Tay said, “We need to create a new paradigm for housing. We need to create homes, not assets. We need to create communities, not property markets. And we need to create a sustainable future, not a temporary fix.”
Prof Tay along with two others, Chief Executive Officer of International Property Advisor Pte Ltd Ku Swee Yong and ex-GIC chief economist and adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Yeoh Lam Keong, as the ground-up imitative, Future Of Singapore, published their public housing policy paper “Addressing Singapore’s Key Housing Problems: Asset Protection, Affordability” in 2019.
They proposed that the Government should provide HDB flat owners with an affordable one-time top-up of the 99-year lease after 50 years.
The paper also mooted three other proposals to the potential problem of the depreciating value of older HDB flats and the crisis of finding affordable public housing or security of tenure, including:
- Providing HDB flat owners with an affordable 99-year lease top-up after 50 years;
- Funding the rebuilding of HDB flats after 100 years;
- Matching BTO and retirement flat prices closely to their construction costs; and
- Providing sufficient decent-sized and affordable rental flats for lower-income Singaporeans.