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Chee Soon Juan’s falsehood of 10M population rekindled my mad respect for our housing policies

TL;DR  – Maybe next GE can try “Sun will rise from the East”?

I know many people are already sick and tired of this 10M population drama. But here, everything you need to know:

  1. In a press release dated July 1, the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), Strategy Group, PMO, have stated categorically that the Government has not proposed, planned nor targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million.
  2. Singapore’s population size is affected by many factors, including birth rates, life expectancy and global developments.
  3. The Government does not seek to achieve any particular population size.
  4. The Government monitors our population trends closely, and regularly review our population policies along with infrastructure and social development needs.
  5. In update on our population outlook was provided in Parliament in March 2018. At that update, the Government said that given recent trends, Singapore’s total population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030.
  6. Mainstream media also reported this news. See here.

So it’s completely bewildering that the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has included this item into their GE2020 slogan.

Their slogan is 4 Yes 1 No, and the “No” is to say no to 10M population.

But there is no 10M population.

He brought it to the GE2020 Political Debate on July 1, 2020. And Minister Vivian Balakrishnan confirmed that there’s no 10M population. In fact, he said the Government does not even have a population target, and added that we won’t even have 6.9M in 2030.

This is consistent with that Min Jo Teo said in March 2018.

Next thing I know I went to bed and woke up to SDP claiming success and victory.

They said they can now strike off one of the five items they want to fight for. YAY, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

I can’t say it better than Prof Ben Leong in his super-interesting-and-you-gotta-read-it Facebook note,

SDP’s manifesto takes the cake. When I first saw the “No,” I was like what the hell is that? Guess what, the SDP’s strategy was to confront the Government on it’s alleged “plan for 10 million population” and have the Government deny having such a plan. Basically, SDP would be the first Party in the history of Singapore politics to be able to deliver on its election promises even before Polling Day. Genius. Why didn’t I think of that? Maybe next GE can try “Sun will rise from the East”?

So now, how did the 10M number get circulated? You can read the full details here.

But basically, the 10M number came from Liu Thai Ker. He’s an architect and also our former Chief Planner, having worked at HDB and also URA. He’s also known as the Achitect of Modern Singapore.

You see, one of the reasons our housing policy is this successful is due to very long-term planning. So when he sprouted that 10M number back in 2013, he had meant that number for super-long-term planning. He’s of the view that Singapore’s urban planners should work based on the possibility of us hitting 10M population in 2100. Nearly a hundred years.

A few details to note. Firstly, he was our ex Chief Planner when he said that. He was NOT speaking as a Government official. And he was saying he thinks the Government should work with this for our planning.

Btw read this very insightful interview where he shared his motto: If the economy grows and population grows, we need to be prepared for it.

If you want your economy to grow, and your population grows but you are not prepared for it, you will have problems.

If you plan well, the city can still be liveable. Singapore is unlike other countries.

If you don’t plan long-term, if you don’t conserve your land carefully, use it efficiently, when you run out of land, you have no land to expand. You have limited land. So you have to use what you have more efficiently from the start to make sure you have enough for changing circumstances.

To keep the economy growing, you need a growing population size. So what’s the reason for us not to plan long-term for large numbers just to make sure we can be self-sufficient.

He has studied our past trends and also studied other countries, and traditionally, population forecasts have always been grossly under-estimated. And he opines that if we don’t plan for it, we will be worse off. And by then, we may not have the luxury and flexibility of building in social spaces, green spaces, etc.

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He has a point, methinks.

Anyway, this 10M population “noise” reminded me of a video I’d watched a few times since it was released back in 2018. Done by a Hong Kong media to study our success and to draw comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong, it’s an enlightening watch.

The first time I watched it, I was blown away. I did not know how very loooooong term our Government plans, and I had no frigging idea this much thinking, planning and this much attention to details and to everything went to the way we live now.

It’s amazing and I only had mad respect for Mr Liu and everyone else who had a hand and leg in this.

IF IT’S UP TO ME, EVERY SINGAPOREAN SHOULD WATCH THIS.

Except that it’s in Cantonese with Chinese subtitles, so not everyone can understand this.

But we’ve captured the gist of the 15-minute video in English here.

The video started with a Hong Kong family who has uprooted and moved to Singapore. They say they much prefer living here in Singapore, and vow to “never go back to Hong Kong.”

Mind you, this video was before all the protests.

So that’s 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

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.

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 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 Proximity Grant of SGD $30,000 from the government as she lives near her parents.

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,

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“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.

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.

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.

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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.

Last 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:

  1. The heart of a humanist,
  2. The brain of a scientist, and
  3. 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.

And now, go read Prof Ben Leong’s Facebook post.

Posted by Ben Leong on Thursday, 2 July 2020

 

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The Editor

Author The Editor

Either busy trying to save the world, or poking my nose into other people's affairs.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Roger Chow says:

    This article is misleading. It only publishes everthing we already know or no need to know.
    SDP-CSJ in the debate video asked VB if their party has any intention (ie. Not sure, that’s why ask) to raise the population to 10 million ? No mention of Falsehood Statement saying PAP has planned for 10 million. CSJ trying to cite an interview article but VB quickly shuts him off.

    To correct your partial truth, please refer and publish the ST article dated 29 March 2019 of Mr Heng speaking on population density (NOT liveable) and citing Lui Thai Ker who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10.5 million people for it to sustainable in the long term.

    To keep the record straight, CSJ did not say PAP has planned for 10 million.
    PWP mentioned population projection of 6.9 million in 2030. Not target.
    Mr Heng is the person citing Lui Thai Ker saying Sgp should plan for 10 million.
    Therefore, CSJ asked the question”if PAP party has any intention to raise population to 10 million ?”

    Please correct and publish FULL truth. Tks

  • Roger says:

    Please publish the full truth and elaborate which specific statement mentioned by CSJ was a falsehood statement as rebuked by VB with reference to ST article dated 29 March, 2019 ? We would like to hear who is making falsehood statement. Tks

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