HDB clinches top UN housing award

Dear UN-Habitat,

I refer to the 23 Sept 2010 Straits Times report of the conferment of the 2010 UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Awards to Singapore’s HDB for providing one of Asia’s and the World’s greenest, cleanest and most socially conscious housing programmes.

Ms Jane Nyakairu, chief of information services at UN-Habitat, was reportedly impressed by the HDB for providing adequate shelter and home ownership for so many. But has Ms Nyakairu ever wondered how did the HDB manage to own so much land to be able to provide so many homes in the first place? In 1960, the government owned only 40% of the land in Singapore. By 2004, it has come to own 90% of the land. How did this tremendous increase in land ownership come about? It came about as a result of the Land Acquisition Act in 1966, which allowed the government to take over land in return for compensation that can be as low as $1. Thus, the housing success that the HDB is honoured for comes from the forcible acquisition of land from the people on the cheap. It is no different from Stalin taking over all the factories in the country and giving a job to each and every person in those factories. So while each person may be given a job, the factories that provide those jobs come from previous owners, not Stalin. Similarly, the land upon which 80% of Singaporeans are housed in HDB flats comes from Singaporeans, not the government or the HDB. To honour the HDB is to honour the Stalinist methods with which the HDB achieved its supposed success. To view it in another way, had the government not forcibly acquired 90% – 40% = 50% of the land in Singapore, will these lands remain fallow and no houses will be built on them? Certainly not, Singaporeans would have built houses on them had the government not forcibly taken them away. We would have been housed just the same, whether the land belonged to the government or to individuals.

Thus, one important criterion that the UN must take into consideration in conferring such awards is that the government should pass on all savings in land cost to the people instead of profiting handsomely in the process. Currently, a supposedly socially conscious new medium sized flat located at a far flung corner of Singapore can be sold for as much as $300,000. Even with the token subsidy of $30,000, the flat still costs $270,000. This is not a socially conscious price tag for most first world cities. It is a market price that is so much higher than the construction cost and the cost of the land upon which it was built bearing in mind that the cost of land is not the same as its current market value. The value of the land may have appreciated manifold over the decades but it doesn’t change the fact that it was acquired for as low as $1 which is the true cost of the land. Yet, you will never find any detail about the building costs and land costs for a flat in HDB annual reports.

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