TL;DR – Basically an article that makes me proud of Singapore.
That is quite a bold statement if you ask me.
Because you know, choosing to migrate to another country is one huge step and it takes a lot of courage to decide to really go ahead with it. But for this Hong Kong family who has uprooted from Hong Kong to Singapore, it was almost like moving from one extreme to the other. And they even vowed to “never go back to Hong Kong.”
In a video titled “Why is it that everybody in Singapore is able to live in big houses? Here are the three keys to planning!” published by Hong Kong news site HK01, the family said,
“(Living in Singapore) I can breathe better.”
“It’s an insult (to be living in Hong Kong’s subdivided flats).”
“We are not planning to return to Hong Kong for the rest of our lives.”
We know how small and expensive houses in Hong Kong are, but we also see how often Singaporeans are complaining about the expensive housing in Singapore. So, how bad exactly is it to live in Hong Kong for Hong Kongers to be singing praises about Singapore’s housing?
Singapore VS Hong Kong
Following the video, an article was also published in Chinese by another online site where it attempted to summarise the comparisons made by the HK01 report between the housing policy of Singapore to that of Hong Kong’s.
We’ve captured and translated some of the key points for you here.
Singapore has a population of 5.64 million people living on 719 km² of land, while Hong Kong has a population of 7.45 million people living on 1,106 km² of land. Singapore’s population and geographic area in comparison to Hong Kong’s are 75% and 65% respectively.
In 2018, Hong Kong’s GDP was US$362.99 billion, and Singapore was US$364.1 billion.
In short, Hong Kong and Singapore share similarities in terms of population density, geological and GDP – except that the Singapore government’s fiscal revenue is only about US$45 billion, while the Hong Kong government’s fiscal revenue is about US$76.5 billion.
The government’s spending on defence in Singapore is signfiicantly higher as compared to Hong Kong’s, with more than 3% of its GDP being spent on defence. (Editor’s note: Well, Hong Kong has China’s military muscles to back it, whilst Singapore is a lone little dot of an island state surrounded by neighbours that are not exactly friendly.)
Hong Kong’s public-private ratio for housing is 4:6, while Singapore is 7:3. Hong Kong’s house price-to-income ratio has made it “severely unaffordable” for its citizens, whilst 90% of Singaporeans got their own homes.
It is no secret that both Singapore and Hong Kong are facing a shortage of land.
But how is it possible that everyone in Singapore live in relatively spacious apartments, while people in Hong Kong are finding it harder to have a roof over their heads?
Why is Hong Kong not developing as well as Singapore in terms of housing?
Interview with Jamie’s family
Hong Kong-born Jamie migrated to Singapore with her family since young and she has been living here for many years.
Her family of four currently lives in a resale Housing Development Board (HDB) flat of more than 1,000 square feet in Sengkang.
She thinks that the current apartment is significantly larger than Hong Kong’s. It is much more comfortable, and she feels that she can “breathe better now” .
Her HDB flat was purchased for SGD $540,000 (about HKD 3.1 million).
Jamie also received a subsidy of SGD $30,000 from the government as she lives near her parents. (Editor’s note: This is the Proximity Grant.)
Jamie and her family felt that they could only experience what real “home ownership” is like after moving to Singapore.
In the interview, Jamie’s mother told the HK01 reporter,
“Living in Singapore is much more comfortable than living in Hong Kong. And no matter how low your income is, you can still own an HDB flat.”
Looking back at Hong Kong’s subdivided flats which can be as small as 20 square feet, Jamie’s father lamented and said,
“It’s an insult to be living in a place like that!”
He believes that Hong Kong needs to address its housing crisis by making it a priority. (Editor’s Note: Some refer to these tiny homes in Hong Kong as cage homes, you can check out how they look like here.)
Veteran architect Liu Thai Ker, also dubbed as the “architect of modern Singapore” was too, interviewed in the HK01 report, in which he drew a comparison between the housing policies of the two countries.
In contrary to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s statement that “…800,000, it may be enough to meet the demand of the poorest families over a period,”
Liu said, “In Singapore, there is no clear indication as to what limit may be set to the number of HDB flats to build. As long as there is a demand for public housing in Singapore, the HDB will continue to build more HDB flats to meet those demands.”
“This is because the ultimate goal is to let every Singaporean own a house.”
Comparing the ratio of public and private housing in Hong Kong and Singapore
Hong Kong has 800,000 public rental flats, 400,000 subsidised flats and 1,600,000 private flats.
Its public-private housing ratio is 4:6.
Singapore has 1,010,000 HDB flats and 370,000 private flats.
The public-private housing ratio is 7:3.
Public Housing in Singapore, commonly known as HDB flats, typically range from 30 square meters to 110 square meters.
(Editor’s note: HDB flats range from 2-room flexi flats to Executive flats and these range from 36 square metres to 130 square meters. Most families go for 3, 4 or 5-room flats, and these range from 60 square metres to 110 square metres.)
Quality of living
There are more than one million flats spread across 24 towns and 3 estates, which makes Singapore’s public housing uniquely different.
The HDB flats spell home for over 80% of Singapore’s resident population, of which, about 90% own their homes.
Besides providing housing, Singapore’s HDB also looks at the whole spectrum of needs that make for an optimal living environment for residents.
In fact, in Liu’s urban planning and master plan, the priority would always be to provide for an entire lifestyle, and just a roof over one’s head. He was not just building a flat for the Singaporean and his family, he also planned and built the localised concepts of precinct, neighbourhoods, and new towns. And it is this unique concept of housing development that literally engineered the way of life many Singaporeans experience today.
Liu and his team which came from different domains of expertise spanning across architecture, engineering, and sociology meticulously considered and planned the tiniest details of life most of us take for granted today.
For instance, when studies found that there was a sharp decline in people’s willingness to walk beyond 400m given Singapore’s tropical climate, Liu’s team then studied the population density required to create demand levels that could support an acceptable variety of shops in neighbourhood centres.
As a compromise, the HDB built neighbourhoods within an average radius of 500m of a nucleus of shops. Yes, this means that most of us HDB-flat-dwellers can literally access basic amenities and shops within 500m of where we live.
Liu also emphasized that everything that Singapore does in its urban planning must be studied and research has to be conducted.
When he was in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), he had a team of 12 doctorates alongside him to help him with his research. He thinks that this could be one of the aspects whereby Singapore is doing better than Hong Kong did.
Singapore’s far-sightedness and long-term planning
Professor Ng Mee Kam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), who has lived in Singapore for three months gave her thoughts about the difference between Hong Kong’s approach and Singapore’s approach to urban planning.
She believes that the key to Singapore’s successful urban planning today is this,
“The people in Singapore believe in science.”
“They respect the truth and pay attention to details and how people utilize space in their lives. They see it as a continual process to innovate themselves to bring new features and improvements for their residents.”
The keys to Singapore’s success
The HK01 study and video concluded that human-centric, meticulous research and long-term planning are the keys to Singapore’s success.
Singapore’s 50-year development plan consists of a national vision, demographic planning, and distribution of civic functions. This grand plan is updated every 10 years.
Under this grand plan is another plan by the URA that envisions Singapore in 10 to 15 years.
This plan, again, is revised every five years and it specifies what types of land are needed, their function, development data, and an overall development plan.
Earlier this year, the URA launched its master plan – a blueprint that charts out the Government’s plans for land use over the next 10 to 15 years.
During his stint at the HDB, Liu also formulated a plan for Singapore for the next 100 years.
Today, Singapore has already achieved more than half of it. However for Hong Kong, there is no long-term plan, there is only a 10- to 20-year plan. Liu said plans like this are like “small turkeys”.
In contrast to the Hong Kong government’s planning, Singapore’s planning is much more far-sighted.
Singapore’s secret sauce to successful urban planning
When asked what are the elements of good and effective planning, Liu thinks that a good urban plan should include these three conditions:
The heart of a humanist,
The brain of a scientist, and
The eye of an artist.
Of course, in order to plan, you need to have land.
In fact, Hong Kong does not lack land at all, says Liu.
On the other hand, in land-scarce Singapore, Singapore relies mainly on land reclamation and the compulsory land acquisition by the government, which has increased the government’s land from 40% in the early years of nation-building to 80% today.
Hence, optimising the use of land resources is integral to sustaining Singapore’s economic and social growth. Therefore, the Ministry of Law has to formulate different policies for the acquisition of land to support the optimal use of land resources in Singapore.
Singapore may be a small country, but did you know that there were as many as 28 golf courses in Singapore at one point?
Today, some of these golf courses have been phased out and the land has been put into other uses, for instance, residential and commercial uses, leaving the city with 16 golf courses.
The Keppel Club, which was founded in 1904, has also been acquired by the government for the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront (GSW) coastline project.
The large areas of grassland, referred to as “white-site”, that are often seen in Singapore, are plots of state land reserved for future development by the government.
Introduced by the URA, the “white-site” planning concept gives developers more flexibility in the use of the sites they bought via the government’s sale of sites program.
It also allows developers to strategise their development activities to the best of their interests in responding to the changing market conditions.
However, for the idle lands in Hong Kong, most of them look like this:
In Singapore, the government strictly forbids real estate developers from land hoarding.
Professor Sing Tien Foo, Dean’s Chair Associate Professor and Director at the Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies (IREUS) from the National University of Singapore (NUS) explains,
“If a housing developer purchases a piece of vacant land from the Singapore’s government, the developer would be given up to five years to complete the development of the residential land.”
“And under the land sales condition, the developer is required to sell all the dwelling houses within two years. Developers are not allowed to buy the piece of land and hoard it.”
In addition, the Singapore government has also adopted a “decentralisation” approach to diversify the use of land.
Development of industrial hubs and housing areas go hand in hand, hence there will be more housing built in the Central Business District (CBD) areas, increasing the effectiveness of land usage.
Singapore’s urban planning successes are in large part due to the government’s far-sightedness and determination to turn the country from a developing city into the metropolis that it is today.
This is also perhaps why Singapore’s housing policies triumph over Hong Kong’s.
You can watch the full video (in Cantonese and Chinese) here: