Singapore's HDB system: Why some are unhappy about Malaysia implementing it

Singapore has given the green light to HDB contractors to share their knowledge

A corridor of a HDB flat in Singapore in the morning
The Malaysian government is set to consult with Singapore's HDB contractors regarding the building of affordable homes. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Vincent Tan

There has been much commotion of late over the announcement that the Malaysian government is set to consult with Singapore's public housing, or HDB (Housing and Development Board) contractors, regarding the building of affordable homes.

And with the specialists slated to arrive at the end of this month, the hubbub and hoopla have yet to die down.

The issue began innocuously enough, back in mid-January 2023, with Malaysia's minister for Local Government Development (KPKT), Nga Kor Ming stating in an interview that Singapore had given the green light to HDB contractors to visit his ministry to share their knowledge.

This was followed by Nga's ministry announcing that it aimed to revamp the existing National Housing Policy, to be based on the Anwar Ibrahim government's newly-introduced Malaysia "Madani" ("civilised" in Arabic) philosophy.

The allusion that Malaysia's southern neighbour had expertise the former did not, however, triggered an immediate response, with politicians from Malay nationalist party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) among the first to protest.

Malaysian minister Nga Kor Ming giving an interview
Local Government Development minister Nga Kor Ming stated that Singapore HDB contractors will be sharing their knowledge with his ministry. (Photo: Local Government Development Malaysia)

Controversy ensues

The party's supreme council member Faiz Na'aman, for one, queried if Malaysia lacked building planning specialists.

And then there was the party's then-information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who accused the Pakatan Harapan-led federal government of using the island republic's public housing formula to alter Malaysia's demographics.

Malaysian media also reported that a free-to-air broadcaster had allegedly stated on its prime-time news programme that the consultation with HDB experts was approved because Malaysia apparently lacked competent civil servants to handle the country's housing issues.

Nga issued swift rebuttals; denying claims that HDB experts were intended to replace underperforming civil servants. The point of inviting foreign experts such as those from Singapore, he stated, was to advance Malaysia's housing sector and allow the country to move forward.

Since the initial furore, Nga has had to periodically defend the HDB delegation's impending visit.

The truth, however, is that Malaysia's public housing system is in need of a massive overhaul, with escalating development costs, outdated quota and subsidy policies, and poor design and planning among the major issues that require looking into.

Repairs and renovations

To be clear, previous governments have attempted to remedy the situation.

However, KPKT deputy minister Akmal Nasrullah Mohd Nasir's recent revelation that the ministry had identified a nationwide total of 18 "sick" federal 1Malaysia Housing Programme (PR1MA) projects proves that good intentions have not always been properly implemented.

Another issue has been duplication of effort.

Hafidzi Razali, an associate director with strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia, explains that there have been multiple housing development agencies at both federal and state government levels, resulting in inefficient use of public resources for a common goal.

Indeed, a check on the Housing page of the Local Government Development Ministry's website shows multiple housing initiatives which Malaysians can access, depending on the initiatives' location and potential applicants' socio-economic status.

States such as Selangor and Johor, additionally, have state government-initiated housing programmes.

And then there is the issue of bureaucracy. PR1MA, for example, was launched in 2011 to much fanfare but termed a "failure" by property experts.

"Federal initiatives like PR1MA faced delays and complications due to lengthy approval processes for state-owned land," Hafidzi says.

"Other factors — high private property acquisition costs, unaffordable prices, unstrategic locations, supply-demand imbalance and poor management — all further contributed to PR1MA's failure to deliver."

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, meanwhile, points out that for the longest time, Malaysia's housing industry has been private sector-led.

"As time goes on, private housing prices soar while wages remain stagnant, making private housing unaffordable for a vast majority of our population," he explains.

In contrast, Dr Oh adds, public housing in Malaysia is treated as a form of housing "safety net", and is, thus, stigmatised, making it unpalatable for many residents who cannot afford private housing.

"We need to have a more comprehensive public housing programme, along Singapore's lines, such that housing becomes more affordable for the vast majority of the population."

How the Singapore system works

One major reason for Singapore's success, Hafidzi explains, is the island republic's centralised system, allowing for effective coordination of resources, as well as the planning, building and management of its public housing.

From its establishment in 1960 to 2021, HDB has completed 1.2 million housing units. And Hafidzi highlights that the statutory body has consistently planned to provide affordable quality homes for Singapore's growing population.

A picture of tall, white Singapore HDB flats.
Singapore's HDB housing scheme has been one of the reasons many Singaporeans are able to afford a roof over their heads. (Photo: Getty Images)

Although HDB flats began as rentals in the 1960s, by 1964, Singapore's government started encouraging citizens to purchase these, promoting a tangible stake not just for their homes, but in the state.

"This enabled the new homeowners to have equity in the country's development, as well as promoted social cohesion through the ethnic quota system," the senior analyst adds.

As a means of enabling homeownership, especially for lower-income households unable to obtain loans or finance the purchase of flats, HDB also took on a mortgage financing role.

Homeownership opportunities were then further expanded with the Public Housing Scheme, allowing Singaporeans to use social security savings in their Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts to make down payments and loan instalments.

According to the HDB's website, approximately 90 per cent of Singapore's population living in HDB flats own their units.

The government has also attempted to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves, by introducing the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in the late 1980s by placing a quota on how much of a neighbourhood is occupied by one ethnicity, ensuring that HDB blocks or developments generally reflect Singapore's multi-ethnic composition and ratios.

So why the hate?

For Hafidzi, the noise against Malaysia consulting with a Singapore statutory body comes from certain Malay right-wing quarters politicising closer collaboration between the two countries as "acceding" to Singapore's influence.

"This fuels an 'us vs. them' mentality that has been perpetuated by certain political leaders since the early '80s," Hafidzi explains.

But also, with state elections due in the next few months, Hafidzi suggests that the political opposition is protesting to maintain momentum, especially when it does not seem able to suggest a better policy or offer a counter-proposal.

"For nationalistic right-wingers in Malaysia, the fact that Singapore got to be an independent nation with a Chinese majority in charge, instead of being firmly held in Malay hands, is repulsive to their jingoistic instincts," Dr Oh says.

As such, he adds, "learning" from almost any Singapore governance model is considered by Malay nationalist parties to be "an insult".

"(And) unfortunately, this cohort of voters is increasing in numbers in tandem with the rise of the green wave in Malaysia," he says.

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