During our early years of nation-building, many public officers strove to make public housing a reality for all. Among them were Mr Lim Kim San, who kick-started the building programme with an urgent sense of mission, and Mr Liu Thai Ker, who was instrumental in promoting building efficiency and shaping flats into homes.

Based on the oral history accounts of Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Liu Thai Ker

It was 1960. With a fast-growing population, Singapore was facing a seemingly insurmountable housing shortage. In the city centre, there were also dire problems of slums, overcrowding and urban decay. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) had just been set up to replace the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) and address these severe challenges..

Toa Payoh in 1967.

Toa Payoh in 1967.

When Mr Lim Kim San was appointed HDB Chairman that year, one of the first things he did was to visit the slums in Chinatown with his fellow officers. The visit was an eye-opener for him.

Some of the labourers were so poor they shared trousers between them… And they shared bunks… So when the one who worked in the daytime was out, the one who worked at night slept in the bunk.

The team met a labourer who’d pulled a blanket right up to his neck. When asked if he was unwell, the labourer replied that he was wearing only briefs as his brother had taken his trousers.
I didn’t think he was in briefs. There was no such thing as briefs at that time. You see how poor they were! They had to share… I told [my officers], “You see how urgent it is.” The smell and the conditions were terrible, really terrible.

I told [my officers],
“You see how urgent it is.”
The smell and the conditions
were terrible, really terrible.

Mr Lim Kim San
HDB Chairman (1960–1963)

Mr Lim got down to work right away by roping in a group of able officers to ramp up planning and construction.

The standing order was that no one who had less than 10 years’ experience as a practising architect would be allowed to design and build. But we were so desperately in need of architects that anyone with a diploma or qualification was called in…

Given a free hand, he was unwavering in putting his plans into action, cutting red tape and snuffing out inefficiency.

Under SIT, there were many committees… I abolished all the committees and told them that we’d sit down and discuss things, and I would just decide what to do.

With typical boldness, Mr Lim and his team formulated HDB’s first Five-Year Building Programme, which set a target of 51,031 units and put forward Toa Payoh as the first satellite town to be fully planned and built by HDB. The team was equally hard on stamping out profiteering by contractors and other unsavoury practices.

We made it known that anyone who thought that he could do, had been doing it, would be allowed to tender for jobs… There were three or four contractors who took turns to tender so that the prices were inflated… We made sure that people who were dealing in building materials did not profiteer from the sudden surge in demand.

I also made sure that the contractors were paid on time, that there was no corruption… If by the 1st and 15th of every month they were not paid, they could have access to me and I’d find out why.

By the end of its first year, HDB had built some 1,600 units, with over 6,600 more under construction. Within three years, it had completed over 21,000 flats – just under the 23,000 units that SIT had built over its 32-year history. Singapore’s public housing boom had begun.

If Mr Lim’s pioneering group of administrators, architects, engineers and builders laid the foundation for Singapore’s public housing programme, it could be said that HDB’s next generation of officers helped transform towns into communities.

Guidelines to architecture are like
grammar to a language. It doesn’t
kill creativity. It just helps creativity...

Mr Liu Thai Ker
HDB Head of Design and Research (1969–1975); Chief Architect (1975); Deputy Chief Executive Officer (1976); and Chief Executive Officer (1979–1989)

Mr Liu Thai Ker had studied architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, before graduating from Yale University with a Master’s in city planning. In the late 1960s, he was an architect and planner in the New York City firm of I. M. Pei when he received a call from Singapore – his skills were needed at home; would he take the challenge?

It was a difficult choice. In New York, we were at the cutting edge and could be involved with many world-scale projects. But returning to Singapore gave me a chance to make a difference.

With wages and aspirations rising in the 1970s, HDB saw the need to refine its standards of design and construction. As HDB’s Head of Design and Research, and later as Chief Architect and then Chief Executive Officer, Mr Liu was known for his scientific approach to improving public housing. To meet the needs of home owners, he employed sociological research to create “corridors in the sky” for residents.

I always treated public housing more as a science, or at least as much a science as it was art… Instead of 20, 30 units sharing one corridor, you break it up into groups of four to eight. It’s amazing how, by having only four to eight families sharing a corridor, the sense of community is very strong… The sociologists told us that you only needed about six to eight families to feel that you belong to a place… Of course, the children can then play around [the area].

Mr Liu also put in place standards and guidelines to boost building efficiency. Among other measures, he standardised floor plans and spaces between blocks while optimising land use by setting the size of new towns and their mix of commercial and industrial use. To make new estates more beautiful, Mr Liu also encouraged HDB’s architects to vary their designs.

Guidelines to architecture are like grammar to a language. It doesn’t kill creativity. It just helps creativity... I wanted the design themes to be varied from precinct to precinct… The variations in design came in the roof form, choice of materials, colour scheme, shape of a building, height of the building and the way the buildings relate to the landscape. Even the landscaping… would be different from one precinct to the other.

By 1976, half of Singapore’s population of 2.4 million was living in HDB flats. In 1977, for the first time ever, the supply of flats outstripped their demand. Public housing in Singapore had finally turned a corner.