Unfair comparison between SIT and HDB

I refer to the 20 Jun 2014 Straits Times letter “HDB policies will change with the times” by Kammo Liu.

Ms Kammo made the common mistake of unfairly comparing the 23,000 housing units built by Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) over 32 years with the 54,000 units HDB built in 5 years.

Japanese Occupation and post war baby boom

The 32 years between 1927 and 1959 spanned the Japanese Occupation. Does Ms Kammo expect SIT to build homes during the Japanese Occupation? Surely the occupation years cannot be included in any comparison between SIT and HDB?

It is also not fair to compare SIT in the years immediately following the end of the war given the extensive war damage and disruption to the construction industry which will take time to restore. It is not fair because by the time HDB started in 1960, the nation had had 15 years to recover from the war versus none for SIT if we start comparing immediately after 1945.

• World War II halted the SIT’s functions and presented it afterwards with a truly formidable problem. At the end of the war, houses were destroyed or derelict but the population was on the increase and a baby boom was under way.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 18]

• The combination of low construction and war damage had resulted in a substantial housing shortage in the immediate post-war years.
[Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing , For Third Urban Research Symposium: Land Development, Urban Policy and Poverty Reduction , 4-6 Apr 2005, Dr Belinda Yuen, NUS professor]

Different charter, different purpose

SIT wasn’t created to develop new houses like HDB was. SIT’s function was to renovate insanitary homes and to house those rendered homeless by its improvement programs, hence it’s named “Singapore Improvement” rather than “Housing Development”.

• When the SIT began its operations in 1927, it possessed only the power to lay out roads, back lanes, open spaces, and drainage, as well as prepare and implement improvement schemes. It did not have the power to zone, a severe impediment to the enactment of a master plan for the entire island.
[Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World, Greg Bankoff and Uwe Lübken and Jordan Sand, page 311]

• There was an anomaly, which became glaringly obvious in the post-war years, in that the SIT was not sufficiently empowered by legislation to do the work it was expected to do. The SIT was formed in 1927 under an ordinance which allowed it to condemn insanitary houses and effect their renovation but not to build new houses. The SIT was given very limited power over housing, and was to build accommodation only for those who were made homeless by its improvement programme.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 18]

It wasn’t until after the war when the housing situation became dire that SIT took on the added role similar to HDB’s. So for fair comparison, only years after the war should be compared, it is not fair to judge SIT for what it wasn’t created for.

High rise

Since HDB’s success formula ultimately lies with building high and high rise flats only appeared after the war, the relevant comparison period should be after the war. It is not fair comparing a period where there are no high rise flats with a period where there are. UK’s first high rise flats appeared in 1948 while those in Singapore first appeared in 1951. A fairer comparison between SIT and HDB should be from 1951 onwards.

• It is worth nothing that the first ten-storey tower blocks in London had appeared only three years before, in 1948.
[Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity, Ryan Bishop & John Phillips & Wei-Wei Ye, page 56]

Comparing the years after 1951, SIT built 18,153 flats (Public Administration Singapore-Style, Jon S. T. Quah, page 60) between 1951 and 1959 or a rate of 2,017 flats per year, which is nearly three times that of 23,000 / 32 = 719 flats per year referred to by Ms Kammo. The figure of 2,017 flats per year is fairer to SIT and is a fifth of what the HDB achieved in its first five years – 1/5th, not 1/15th.

HDB benefitted from SIT’s experience

HDB inherited and benefited from SIT’s invaluable experiences, it spring boarded from SIT’s base and foundation, it did not start from scratch.

• The Singapore Improvement Trust … did provide the basis of a public housing bureaucracy with a valuable accumulation of experience, which could later be utilized by the Housing and Development Board. An illustration of this transition is the development of the first satellite town, Queenstown, which was originally planned by the Trust but was left to its successor to accomplish.
[The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore, Michael Hill and Kwen Fee Lian, page 114]

There was also an overlap of up to 19,372 units between the work of SIT and HDB in the development of Queenstown which is no small number compared to the number of flats HDB built in its early years. Although the majority of those units were built by the HDB, one cannot deny the fact that they were started by the SIT.

• Although the development of Queenstown was initiated by the SIT in 1952, the estate was subsequently completed by SIT’s successor, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), in the early 1970s. A major part of the town was developed during the first Five-Year Building Programme (1960–1965). Between the years 1952 and 1968, a total of 19,372 housing units were built in the area.
[HistorySG, an online resource guide – Development of Queenstown, Singapore’s first satellite town, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/ecd861b6-87eb-4f95-bfb9-4cc439cf44ea%5D

Different eras

It is also not completely fair to compare SIT and HDB because they belong to different eras, just as it is unfair to compare Singapore’s GDP during Goh Chok Tong era with Singapore’s GDP during Lee Hsien Loong era and concluding that the latter is better than the former. When measured against the standards of its own time, SIT’s performance had been commendable.

• The housing of 150,000 Singaporeans by the SIT had no parallel elsewhere in Asia. Straits Times, 2 Feb 1960
[Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity, Ryan Bishop and John Phillips and Wei-Wei Yeo, page 57]

• … He told the Straits Times: “I have never seen such wonderful blocks of flats … The S.I.T. flats, which he toured yesterday, “staggered him.” … “People in Liverpool where we consider ourselves to be in the forefront of town planning and slum clearance, would fight to get an S.I.T flat in one of the new blocks I saw to-day.
[The Straits Times, 10 June 1952, Page 5, He is all praise for SIT homes]

• The S.I.T should be congratulated for developing Queenstown into a beautiful estate which was once covered with shrubs and graveyards. Queenstown should now be considered a model housing estate for Singapore. It has the highest building, schools, markets, good roads and plenty of playing grounds for children and very good flats.
[The Straits Times, 8 September 1956, Page 12, A SLUM IN THE MAKING]

• One of its enduring achievements was the building of a new town at Tiong Bahru, intended to relieve the congestion in Chinatown. It housed 6,600 people and was to have been the first of a series of satellite towns.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 18]

• The SIT record shows that by the end of 1959, it had built 22,115 housing units, 904 shops, and twelve markets. Another solid achievement to its credit was the completion of the Master Plan. It is often commented that the performance of the SIT was unremarkable compared with that of its successor, the HDB. But the different conditions under which the two bodies worked should be taken into account.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 19]

Land Acquisition Act

Perhaps the most important difference between SIT and HDB was that the latter had access to abundant cheap land acquired through the Land Acquisitions Act whereas SIT had to haggle with property owners over land compensation.

• The work of the SIT was hampered by the greed of property owners, who demanded excessive sums as compensation for their condemned houses, and by the law which favoured the propertied classes. A scheme to improve ninety-four houses in Bugis Street involved the SIT in a protracted legal battle from 1933 to 1937 which went up to the Privy Council where a decision was given favouring the owners of the houses.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 18]

It should therefore come as no surprise to Ms Kammo that HDB was able to house 85% of Singaporeans after buying up nearly all the land in Singapore on the cheap.

Events like the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961 also helped clear slums to yield 60 hectares of precious land for housing.


The evaluation of SIT’s performance over 32 years is unfair because:

• The period spans the Japanese Occupation and doesn’t take into account extensive war time damage that required time to repair.

• It also fails to account for the fact that SIT’s per-war purpose wasn’t to build new homes but to improve existing insanitary homes. SIT shouldn’t be taken to task for what it wasn’t tasked for.

• HDB’s success lies with building high but high rise flats didn’t appear in Singapore until 1951. So at the very least, comparison should be after 1951 as it isn’t fair comparing a period where there are high rise flats with a period where there aren’t.

• SIT’s performance after 1951 was three times better than the often but unfairly quoted performance over 32 years.

• HDB could spring board from SIT’s wealth of experience, it didn’t start from scratch

• It is never entirely fair to compare the different eras to which SIT and HDB belonged. SIT did well when compared to its own time.

• HDB had plenty of cheap land acquired through the Land Acquisitions Act whereas SIT had to fight protracted legal battles over land compensation.


4 Responses to “Unfair comparison between SIT and HDB”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Kudos to you for this excellent piece. One can almost feel the frustration you have with these hacks out to re-write the state’s history and hope to get away with such gibberish. You might add that the Housing Development Board was created after a Commission into the housing needs of the future population was thoroughly looked into by the Lim Yew Hock government and not the PAP government. The Colonial authorities and the local government were looking ahead to the day when full independence would be granted. Unfortunately for Lim he lost the 1959 GE.

  2. Saycheese Says:

    And all this while I thought the Founding Father of Singapore created HDB with the mission to convert this fishing village into a giant metropolis and JTC to reclaim swamps into factories, shipyards, ports and oil refineries!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Saycheese. Now you know. Taking the credit for other people’s ideas and work is the name of the game. The HDB Ordinance was introduced in the Legislative Assembly on 13th August, 1958, and was sent to the Select Committee. It was passed on 26the January, 1959, well before the PAP won the 1959 GE.

  4. Times magazine – Lee Kuan Yew is not the father of Singapore | Yours Truly Singapore Says:

    […] The provision of affordable homes had already started during colonial years; Lee merely took over the good work and expanded on it (https://trulysingapore.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/unfair-comparison-between-sit-and-hdb/). […]

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