Faced with crumbling buildings and urban squalor at Independence, far-sighted planning and sustainable development laid the groundwork for a green global city and an endearing home for all Singaporeans.

Singapore's urban environment in the 1950s and 1960s was in a sorry state. The Housing and Development Board (HDB)’s inaugural annual report in 1960 described “huts made of attap, old wooden boxes, rusty corrugated iron sheets and other salvage material… congested squatter settlements with no sanitation, water or any of the elementary health facilities.” 1 Almost a quarter of a million people lived in dilapidated slum conditions, crammed six to a room, with many more residing in squatter colonies along the city fringes. 2 With the population growing rapidly, 3 overcrowding was worsening. Dwellings in the city centre were often too small to accommodate large families, leading to cramped living conditions, poor ventilation and inadequate sanitation.

The British colonial administration had taken a laissez-faire approach towards housing and urban planning in general; 4 they had paid little attention to the housing needs of thousands of Chinese and Indian migrant workers who had flocked to Singapore in search for jobs in the booming rubber and tin industries in Malaya. The increasingly squalid living conditions and acute housing shortage compelled the British authorities to set up the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1927, a statutory board tasked to tackle town planning, slum clearance and subsequently provide low-cost housing, first for those made homeless due to Improvement Schemes and then for lower-income groups. However, SIT was hampered in its initial efforts to build housing as much of its limited resources were expended on road and land development plans and demolishing unsanitary buildings.

Conditions worsened with the outbreak of World War II; in the postwar period, SIT was unable to catch up with the needs of the city. In 1947, the population was nearly 940,000 with more than 70% living in the city centre. 5 From 1947 to 1959, SIT was only able to complete 20,907 units, enough to house 100,000 people – out of a population that had grown to 1.5 million. By the time the need for more comprehensive urban planning and housing provision was realised, sweeping changes were underway. The year after the first statutory Master Plan was approved in 1958, Singapore was granted full internal self-government in 1959. With independence in 1965, we had to rethink our entire approach to planning, building and housing not just a city, but a nation.


Newly independent Singapore faced many urban challenges. Land badly needed to address overcrowding and slums in the city centre was in short supply. With limited funds and resources, the new government enacted sweeping legislation to obtain land for urban development without straining public coffers. 6 The Land Acquisition Act (LAA) of 1966 was controversial but necessary, as then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew would later explain:

When we were confronted with an enormous problem of bad housing, no development, overcrowding, we decided that unless drastic measures were taken to break the law, break the rules, we would never solve it. We therefore took overriding powers to acquire land at low cost, which was in breach of one of the fundamentals of British constitutional law – the sanctity of property. But that had to be overcome, because the sanctity of the society seeking to preserve itself was greater. So we acquired at sub-economic rates. 7

The power to acquire land was critical to fulfilling many of Singapore’s early objectives, from the provision of public housing to the development of industrial estates and major public infrastructure projects such as the airport and ports. Because land acquisition was by nature sweeping and contentious, 8 its legal and administrative framework had to be open, fair and transparent. Safeguards as well as an appeal process were put in place to prevent its abuse by the unscrupulous and to ensure that land acquired was clearly needed for a public purpose. 9


On 1 February 1960, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government replaced the colonial-era SIT with the Housing and Development Board (HDB), tasking it with an ambitious and large-scale public housing programme for the masses. HDB had inherited a daunting situation: the population was growing by 4.3% annually, meaning that at least 15,000 homes had to be built each year to house new citizens and replace old dilapidated structures. 10 After SIT’s lacklustre efforts, the housing shortage had become more acute.

Mr Lim Kim San, an entrepreneurial businessman, was appointed the first Chairman of HDB. He streamlined public housing decision-making processes and helped build indigenous capacity in the domestic construction industry to better undertake the massive public housing building programme. The leadership team he assembled comprised renowned practitioners of the mantra “talk less, do more”: 11 by 1962, just three years after it was established, HDB had built 21,232 units – compared to SIT’s 23,019 units over its 32 years of operation. 12 On Merdeka Day in 1964, a Straits Times article headlined “A Flat Every 45 Minutes” reflected the buoyant mood that the housing problem had been resolved: 13


The fire that broke out in the Bukit Ho Swee area on 25 May 1961 ravaged 2,200 dwellings, 16 but it became a catalyst for the expansion and acceleration of the Government’s public housing programme. Emergency flats were built with great speed – averaging three-and-a-half units a day – to rehouse victims of the fire. This boosted HDB’s credibility and demonstrated the Government’s commitment to provide for the people. After independence, the new Bukit Ho Swee estate, at the periphery of the city, would help resettle families relocated from the Central Areas of the city, freeing up the city centre for urban renewal.

Lower income groups in Singapore, which once waited helplessly and in vain for years for a Singapore Improvement Trust flat, can today move into a Housing and Development Board flat within days of applying for one. This in a nutshell illustrates how the Singapore Government, within a comparatively short time, has broken the back of the acute housing shortage and provided the people, who have hitherto been crying for a decent place to live in, with modest new flats whose rents are made uneconomically low so that they may be within the means of the tenants... In February this year, the Minister for National Development announced the Government’s policy to encourage property owning democracy in Singapore as the acute shortage of housing had been alleviated.
- The Straits Times, 31 August 1964

Home Ownership and Nation-Building
Before 1964, all HDB flats were for rental at affordable rates, as many could not afford to buy their flats. As the housing shortage began to ease, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had already begun to entertain the notion of pursuing home ownership. Having seen first-hand the stark contrast between the homes of rental tenants and home owners, he was convinced that “if every family owned its home, the country would be more stable.” 14 When Singapore became independent in 1965, home ownership became an urgent priority. Said Mr Lee:

After independence in 1965, I was troubled by Singapore’s completely urban electorate. I had seen how voters in capital cities always tended to vote against the government of the day and was determined that our householders should become home owners, otherwise we would not have political stability… I believed this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience. 15

The Home Ownership for the People Scheme was launched in 1964, but home ownership only took off after changes were made to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) in 1968 to allow Singaporeans to use their CPF accounts to pay their monthly mortgage. 17 The Government had foreseen the social problems that could be posed by rising inequality given Singapore’s economic growth strategy and saw in home ownership a way to maintain social stability and promote social mobility. 18 Public housing and home ownership became important institutional pillars in Singapore’s nation-building project:

This is foundational, and it helped to build a nation out of disparate racial and ethnic communities. So it was in the new towns that a sense of community was forged, as Chinese, Malays, and Indians lived side-by-side, neighbours along the common corridors of HDB blocks, going to the same schools, markets and community centres, and engaging in common activities every day.
– Mr Peter Ho, Chairman, Urban Redevelopment Authority 19

In contrast to the colonial era, where different ethnic groups were segregated from each other, the newly built HDB flats fostered a greater mix of ethnic groups. This helped to build a sense of community and social cohesion – critical to the harmony and stability of a diverse society that had seen ethnically-charged violence in the 1960s. In the late 1980s, as HDB’s building programme slowed down and the resale market grew, there were warning signs that ethnic enclaves were starting to re-form in certain housing estates. As a pre-emptive step, the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989 to ensure a mix of ethnic groups in each town and even apartment block. Sales of new HDB flats and resale HDB flats were regulated based on pre-determined ethnic quotas. This principle of encouraging social mixing and preventing enclaves from forming in our public housing estates has remained an important tenet in Singapore:

We had to mix them all up. Those who say we should cancel those restrictions on racial minorities buying and selling, they just don’t understand what the racial fault lines are and what the consequences can be. These are safeguards we put in, which have prevented the communities from fragmenting and being alienated from one another.

The mixing of the races also ensured that no estate would have a disproportionate share of the less well-off. Getting the various races to live next to each other also enabled them to see how their neighbours were doing in life, which encouraged them to make sure that they educated their children well so they could get ahead in life.

The less successful are spread over every new town, so you don’t have the unsightliness of going into a slum area, where shops are poor, streets are dishevelled, people are looking dispirited. This physical landscape and the demographic mix that we have brought about, have changed the character of Singapore society.

– Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor (2004–2011) 20


The resettlement of squatters from the city centre to new HDB flats freed up land for redevelopment and urban renewal. In the early 1960s, the Government had sought technical assistance and advice from the United Nations (UN). A State and City Planning Department (SCPD) was established in 1967 to prepare a comprehensive, long-term urban development plan for Singapore. The SCPD group, working with a team appointed by the UN, was multi-disciplinary and comprised a diverse mix of agencies. These included the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Urban Renewal Department (URD), set up under HDB in 1964 to “rejuvenate the old core of the city by making better use of land… by rebuilding the city completely”. 21 Together, they laid the foundations for an integrated approach to urban planning that would eventually be realised as the Concept Plan of 1971.


Looking back, it looks so natural or inevitable, this sprouting up of housing estates all over Singapore. But each step along the way, from the clearing of squatters, the acquisition of land, the building and so on, entailed much effort. In some cases, the unhappiness over resettlement remained for years, maybe never went away entirely.

– Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister 25

Residents on land that had been acquired for redevelopment under the Land Acquisition Act had to be resettled, sometimes against their wishes. In the early years, many viewed resettlement with great suspicion, hostility and even organised resistance. Violence against public officials was not uncommon. Former Deputy CEO of HDB, Mr Yao Chee Liew, who was then a young civil engineer, recalls:

Gangs of squatters would attack us with parangs and chase us away. They meant business. Sometimes, we would have to run for our lives, across narrow planks over the drains to escape. 26

It was an iterative process; public officers learnt from early mistakes, and resistance to resettlement eventually declined. By the 1980s, resettlement would hit a high of 18,000 cases a year, with slum dwellers and tenants offered new HDB flats.

The Government was mindful to respect and preserve social bonds that had been built up over the years – communities were often resettled as a group so neighbours and families could continue to live near to each other in their new estates. This principle endures in the way the current HDB Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) is managed.

With a planning timeframe of 30 to 35 years, the 1971 Concept Plan was the first coherent and coordinated urban development framework to account for Singapore’s economic and social needs in the long term. 22 More than 40 years later, much of the basic structure of modern Singapore’s urban landscape and built-up area is a result of the key features of the 1971 Concept Plan: for example, in the way Singapore’s nature reserves and water catchment areas are currently preserved in the island’s centre, surrounded by a ring of self-contained satellite new town developments. It is also evident in the network of expressways and the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system that connects the new towns. Planning ahead for a mass transit system has allowed the Government to set aside land in advance for its eventual construction. By setting a clear long-term structure for Singapore, the 1971 Concept Plan became a common reference to “focus, guide, and coordinate the various government agencies in carrying out extensive clearance, resettlement, and development works”. 23 It helped to formalise Singapore’s whole-of-government approach to addressing Singapore’s land needs, allowing land to be allocated to different uses efficiently while ensuring alignment with the nation’s overall long-term needs. A Master Plan translates the broad strategies of the Concept Plan into detailed implementation plans for the next 10 to 15 years; this is reviewed every five years to allow for changes in planning parameters and circumstances. 24

In 1974, URD became an independent statutory board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), under the Ministry of National Development. Its main task was to redevelop the Central Area and resettle affected residents to new locations. Between 1967 and 1989, URA vacated and sold a total of 184 hectares of land; the resulting 155 development projects transformed the Central Area into a modern financial and business hub. 27 Through the Government Land Sales (GLS) Programme, the Government has used the sale of land to steer and implement urban development plans through the private sector. The OUB Centre and OCBC Centre are two examples from this early period of Singapore’s urban transformation that still stand today.

In the late 1980s, there was a deliberate and comprehensive overhaul of Singapore’s land planning system and institutions. In 1989, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Act was amended to amalgamate URA, the Ministry of National Development’s Planning Department and its Research and Statistics Unit. This reorganisation laid the foundations for an integrated land planning authority that could plan on a national level for Singapore as a whole, beyond just the Central Area the old URA had been primarily responsible for. 28 Its immediate task was to formulate the 1991 Concept Plan – often regarded as Singapore’s watershed plan, as it was the first time that the local planning authority would be drafting the Plan on its own. 29 The Plan would map out physical land use for a period of 40 to 50 years, on the basis of an ultimate population size of 4 million.

Unlike the 1971 Concept Plan, which mainly involved government agencies, the 1991 version featured a concerted effort to solicit views from the non-government sector, including the private sector and academia. This consultative approach was intended to “tap the ideas, skills and experience of the private sector” and “ensure that the land use plan in each zone [took] into account the opinions and ideas of all interested sectors of [Singapore] society”. 31

The 1991 Concept Plan articulated the audacious idea that land use should be integrated with transport planning, in tandem with the decentralisation of commercial activities from the city’s Central Area. Decentralisation would help to ease congestion in the city centre. Public transport would play a central role in the growth of the city: 32

The 1991 Concept Plan made it clear that Singapore’s entire urban system must have public transit as the first organising principle. Therefore, the planning and allocation of the most intensive and activity-generating uses were at the most accessible locations by mass transit… the interchange stations where two or three MRT lines meet.
– Mr John Keung,
Deputy CEO, URA (1996–2001)


As early as 1971, the Government had established the Preservation of Monuments Board to identify historically and architecturally significant buildings in Singapore to preserve. But in Singapore’s early years, urban conservation was not a top priority, since limited public resources were focused on more pressing issues such as public housing and unemployment. Later, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew would note that his government had “recklessly demolished the old run-down city centre to build anew”, and that this had triggered a sense of “disquiet over the speed at which [Singapore was] erasing its past”. 30 When the new URA was established in 1989, it was also formally appointed as the national conservation authority, with the mandate to conserve Singapore’s built heritage. In July 1989, URA gazetted the first batch of areas for conservation comprising Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, the Singapore River, Emerald Hill and Cairnhill.


While the 1971 Concept Plan had laid the foundation for Singapore’s modern urban transport system, 33 the Concept Plan of 1991 marked a paradigm shift in transport planning. The development of self-contained hubs (such as Tampines Regional Centre) away from the city centre meant that transport networks and infrastructure across the island had to be much more closely coordinated and integrated with residential and commercial developments.

In 1995, the Government consolidated the planning and regulatory functions for both private and public transport, which included rail and road transport, under a single statutory board: the Land Transport Authority. The integration of different government agencies – namely the Roads and Transportation Division of PWD, 36 Registry of Vehicles (ROV), 37 Mass Rapid Transit Corporation and the Land Transport division of the Ministry of Communications – enabled more comprehensive approaches to tackling Singapore’s transport challenges. 38

As an independent nation, Singapore has had to urbanise and industrialise rapidly to survive and look after the urgent needs of our people. But we have always sought to develop our city in ways that are environmentally sound and sustainable. In our earliest years, this was a matter of prudence – as a tiny island nation newly separated from Malaysia, we had to make the most of what little natural resources we had: including land, water and clean air. The Ministry of the Environment (ENV), set up in 1972, has anchored the Government’s emphasis on environmental issues in Singapore since.

Between 1962 and 1973, the number of motor vehicles in Singapore grew by 8.8% a year, adding to congestion on the roads. 34 In order to avoid the long traffic jams that brought other developing cities to a regular standstill, the Government took decisive steps to curb the burgeoning car population and manage road usage by deploying a range of market-based policies. This included the Area Licensing Scheme 35 in 1975, which charged motorists a toll for entering the Central Business District (CBD) and the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) in 1990, limiting the number of vehicles added to the roads each year.

Much also has to do with the personal commitment, dedication and vision of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who saw creating a clean, green and well-built Singapore as imperative. A developed garden city would draw tourists and investors and also balance the relentless drive towards industrialisation. Mr Lee also understood its deeper significance as a way to build up a sense of national unity and common purpose:

If we did not create a society which is clean throughout the island, I believed then and I believe now, we have two classes of people: the upper class, upper middle and even middle class with gracious surroundings; and the lower middle and the working class, in poor conditions. No society like that will thrive. We were going to have National Service. No family will want its young men to die for all the people with the big homes and those owning the tall towers. So it was important that the whole island be clean, green and with everybody owning property. It was a fundamental principle on which I crafted all policies, and it’s worked. Today, whether you are in a one, two, three, four or five-room flat, executive condominium or landed property, it’s clean. You don’t live equally, but you are not excluded from the public spaces for everybody. 44

The 1971 Concept Plan sparked a decade-long national debate. 39 At stake: the future of Singapore’s public transport. Then Minister for Communications, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, favoured a mass rail transit system; an idea the Prime Minister also supported. 40 Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Finance Minister, opposed rail development because of its exorbitant cost (some $5 billion at the time), 41 and preferred a much cheaper all-bus system. 42 Two teams of American experts were commissioned to study the two proposed systems. In 1982, the consultants reported that an all-bus system was not practical as it would have to compete for road space in land-scarce Singapore. On the other hand, rail development was likely to enhance land values around stations, particular in newly reclaimed areas such as Marina Bay. 43 Finally, the decision was made to proceed with constructing the Mass Rapid Transit system, which has redefined the Singaporean landscape since.

In the years that followed, Mr Lee would personally intervene on many occasions to steer policies towards a clean and green city: from applying vehicular emissions inspections after he had observed such standards in Boston, 45 to an annual Tree Planting Day – a time-honoured tradition that has continued since 1971. 46 A famous example was his insistence that the Japanese firm Sumitomo had to adhere to strict pollution control standards in building Singapore’s first petrochemical complex. This was also expected of all multinational corporations (MNCs) who wished to locate their factories in Singapore. While acknowledging that this could deter much needed investment, Lee was prepared to take the risk because:

We are just one small island, if we were to spoil it, we’ve had it. Unless we protect ourselves by placing the right industries in the right places… we will despoil the city. 47

Over the years, Singapore has also paid close attention to the cleaning up of its beaches and waterways. A massive clean-up at the national level was initiated by Mr Lee in his 1970 National Day Rally Speech and subsequently in 1977 when he threw down the gauntlet to clean up the Singapore River, which had become dirty and filled with toxic waste from years of indiscriminate dumping.

Singapore’s management of water has also been a matter of security, survival and sovereignty. In the 1960s, the Malaysian Prime Minister had threatened to use Johor’s supply of water to Singapore as leverage to ensure that Singapore did not undertake policies detrimental to Malaysia’s interests. A unit within Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office was set up in response to this challenge. 48 To expand our water resources, the Seletar and Peirce Reservoirs were expanded by 1969 and 1975, and the central nature reserve safeguarded against development. By 1972, a Water Master Plan was instituted to steer the long-term development of Singapore’s water resources. 49 New technologies, such as NEWater, are recentexpressions of this national effort. Today, Singapore is recognised as having one of the most effective water management regimes in the world.

Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Out Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

In an era of progress and prosperity, however, scarcity could lose its motivating force in the national consciousness. Singapore, the global city of today, is facing political, social and cultural challenges that former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, anticipated 40 years ago, when he first coined the term “global city” to describe Singapore’s future aspirations:

Laying the economic infrastructure of a Global City may turn out to be the easiest of the many tasks involved in creating such a city. But the political, social and cultural adjustments such a city would require to enable men to live happy and useful lives in them may demand a measure of courage, imagination and intelligence which may or may not be beyond the capacity of its citizens. 51

As material needs are met, other priorities and anxieties may take hold. Yet while the physical dimension of Singapore’s urban transformation over the past 50 years has been remarkable, we should remember that our nation-building project has always been about much more than merely roads, flats, trains and infrastructure. The past 50 years have represented a herculean effort to transcend and overcome not only physical but also social constraints and limitations, “creating a country where none had been intended”. 52 Our core Singapore institutions such as public housing and our clean, green and inclusive environment can help preserve and regenerate our sense of who we are as Singaporeans even as we move into an uncertain, complex future:

Email from Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of National Development, Benny Lim, "PS50 Book – Covering the Key Elements", April 10, 2015.