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'No easy start' for leaders behind housing scheme

Khaw pays tribute to pioneers who got it going 50 years ago

Posted on 13-Feb-2014
By: Janice Heng And Rachel Au-Yong

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'No easy start' for leaders behind housing scheme

SINGAPORE'S home ownership scheme turned 50 years old yesterday - an occasion which National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan marked by paying tribute to pioneer leaders who got the scheme off the ground.

"Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew envisioned making Singapore a nation of home owners," he wrote on his blog. "Many pioneers such as then National Development Minister Lim Kim San helped turn his vision into reality."

But these pioneer leaders did not have an easy start.

Singapore had few reserves and faced a post-war baby boom and high unemployment.

Indeed, "there were many sceptics" when the home ownership scheme was launched on Feb 12, 1964, Mr Khaw quoted Mr Lee as recalling at the 2009 handover ceremony of the Pinnacle@Duxton - the cutting-edge, 50-storey testament to the pioneers' success.

Said Mr Lee: "Against the odds, through grit and determination, we housed the nation progressively and systematically."

Looking back on the Housing Board's Home Ownership for the People Scheme, as it was called back then, Mr Khaw said: "As we mark 50 years of home ownership, let us remember our pioneers who made it possible."

In his blog, he included a link to a 1988 TV documentary episode by the Singapore Broadcasting Corp (now MediaCorp), Homes For Our People, hoping it would "reignite some nostalgia and remind us how far we have come".

One who has seen the rise of home ownership at close hand is Mr Tan Chong Hock, 63, who has been with the HDB for 37 years. "In the 1970s and 80s, there wasn't much public interest in a flat," the senior estate manager recalled.

Instead, a challenge he faced then was dealing with kampung dwellers who were being resettled into the flats.

The resettlers "tended to have more questions and seemed to be scared to sign their documents, partly because they didn't understand - many of them spoke in dialect", he said.

Later, public demand picked up. Principal estate manager Lim Kok Chun remembers his busy early years with the HDB, in the late 1990s: "On each morning, I would have at least three appointments with buyers and sellers - my record was five before lunch."

But the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis were felt by the early 2000s, leaving the HDB with more than 30,000 unsold flats which Mr Lim and colleagues "went town by town to pitch".

Even as demands and needs have changed, however, some principles have not.

Flat designs have always been ahead of the times. Early estates such as Toa Payoh and Queenstown may seem basic now but "were considered very progressive in their time" as the flats had long corridors and flush toilets, said Mr Khaw.

And designs continue to be "forward-looking", with all new Build-To-Order projects starting this year to have eco-features such as energy- saving lighting in common areas.

But more important than hardware is heartware, he added. HDB estates are where Singaporeans build homes, start families and forge bonds.

"Today, home ownership remains our key social pillar.

"It gives Singaporeans a tangible stake in our country, financial security, and a critical sense of belonging," he wrote.

And, 50 years on, it remains close to the hearts of Singaporeans. In the Government's Our Singapore Conversation feedback exercise last year, 97 per cent of Singaporeans said home ownership was still important to them.

"The core purpose (of) housing the nation remains the same," Mr Khaw wrote. "(The HDB) will continue to help Singaporeans realise their dreams of owning a home."

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