Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Cohesive Nation, Thanks To The HDB

Source : The Straits Times, June 25, 2008

NEW YORK - IN SOME countries, an apartment can be the heart of the family, or just a place to store� clothes and a bed. In others, it is the unattainable dream, a symbol of security as far away as the moon.

In Singapore, a 48-year-old programme has turned home ownership into a formidable tool to create cohesive communities and fuel economic expansion.


'The housing programme is a key pillar for continued economic growth,' says Mr James Koh Cher Siang, chairman of the Housing Board.

'The underlying philosophy is nation-building, to root the population in Singapore and its future.'

That far-reaching vision was honoured by the United Nations on Monday during a day-long celebration of public-service innovations.

The HDB was one of 12 organisations recognised by the United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN), and the only one from Asia singled out for what is, effectively, a lifetime achievement award for excellence. Nearly 190 organisations from 39 countries entered the three public-service award categories.

The HDB, along with social programmes from Rwanda (improving community health and education), the United States (curbing juvenile delinquency and family violence) and Brazil (teaching building trades for historic preservation to unemployed youth), was cited for improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness in public service.

...TO CONDO-STYLE FLATS: The HDB's home-ownership programme won recognition from the United Nations for providing quality housing. -- ST FILE PHOTOS

'Singapore's home-ownership programme has provided quality housing for more than 80 per cent of the people and helped more than 95 per cent of them to own their homes,' said UN Undersecretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Sha Zukang, who presented the awards on Monday.

'The awardees are an inspiration for all of us in their ability with ingenuity, creativity and commitment to improve transparency, accountability and responsiveness in public service.'

In a statement issued in Singapore yesterday, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan congratulated the HDB and said that the award was 'a tribute not just to HDB, but also to the Singapore people because the home-ownership programme is very much a part of our lives today'.

It is a success story that goes back almost half a century, to the days when many Singaporeans lived in kampungs.

A government initiative to develop affordable housing changed people's lives dramatically, putting families into basic high-rise homes with sanitation and clean running water.

With government commitments of land, money and enabling laws, the HDB built 50,000 flats in the first five years.

As the programme grew, the designs became more varied and ambitious: homes were larger, more pleasant and cost more.

Housing estates featured conveniences like transportation, shops, childcare and recreation. Soon, it was not just a question of affordability, but desirability.

'As time progressed, people's aspirations changed, they wanted quality housing,' Mr Koh told The Straits Times on Monday. 'They had more money, they wanted different kinds of flats, from smallest to the largest.'

With their upgraded fixtures and amenities, he added, the HDB flats rival private condos for sophisticated buyers.

Today, 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB homes, the dream of owning them made possible by a combination of subsidies and access to their Central Provident Fund savings to pay for their flats.

This kind of stability and success is both a beacon and a taunt to countries struggling to cope with housing shortages and runaway prices.

'My government cannot possibly undertake something like that,' said a Brazilian diplomat, after listening to HDB deputy director Lily Wong's brief presentation on the housing programme. 'We do not have the money, the foresight, the land, the harmony. I cannot imagine trying to re-create this in Rio. Our slums are too large.'

The world is in something of a housing crisis: slums are spreading like a shadow across Latin America, Africa and Asia, devouring rural areas and extending cities far beyond their capacities.

The US economy is roiled by a mortgage crisis; major cities including Moscow, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York have a near-zero vacancy rate, especially for affordable homes.

UNPAN officials noted that the winning programmes should introduce new concepts to tackle widespread problems.

Singapore's presentation sparked envy in many in the small audience, but also a touch of wistfulness.

'I guess if you started with a clean slate, such a programme would be possible,' said a European delegate. 'Maybe they could replicate this in East Timor but I don't know where else.'

In fact, housing officials from India and China - sprawling countries with masses packed into teeming cities - have sought out Singapore's HDB for advice, HDB chief executive officer Tay Kim Poh told The Straits Times.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro praised the winners, who this year hail from Australia, Brazil, India, Jordan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia and the United States.

'Your exemplary initiatives should inspire all governments around the world - at all levels - to strive for excellence in public service,' she said.

'While the private sector and civil society play a fundamental role in the development process, it is governments that have the main role to steer development efforts and provide the necessary conditions for a stable, peaceful and prosperous society.'

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