Bridging the social divide in housing

Realism suggests that the rich-poor divide in society cannot be bridged merely by building more Housing Board flats on prime land. In drawing attention to this stubborn fact of social life, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing has reiterated the pragmatic limits of benign government intervention in bringing closer those who live in public housing and those in private homes.

A paper published recently by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy noted that over 70 per cent of housing in the central area were private compared with about 23 per cent in other parts of the island. The author said this "could exacerbate household income differentials as well as spatial segregation by income over time" as HDB residents might drift towards the lower-paying jobs found closer to their homes. Those in favour of blended communities cite social cohesion and mobility as key concerns. While those against HDB flats like Pinnacle@Duxton see these as "pointlessly symbolic and economically unsound - an unnecessary market distortion that creates large windfall gains for the lucky few".

Envy alone, of course, should not subvert the case for socially integrated living. But the wider objective should be to create shared amenities and spaces in central areas that can facilitate social interaction on a daily basis. Integrating public and private housing wherever possible creates the basis of a single spatial community not closed to HDB-dwellers, who form the majority of the population. By contrast, setting aside prime land only for those who can afford it would achieve more limited ends. It would realise the market value of land as a commodity, which is a part of the Government's economic duty to Singapore, but not reflect the social value of land as an arena for possible national bonding. Having put up the buildings and facilities, though, residents will have to take the next step of going out of their way to interact and get to know their neighbours better if the intended bonds are to be forged.

In the worst cases, market-driven segregation would lead to the creation of exclusive enclaves. Sentosa is an exception because its offshore ambience, born of the absence of geographical contiguity with the mainland, reduces grounds for resentment. Other areas are different, however. Marina South, for example, is envisaged as a fenceless community offering residents the best in city living. It would be ironical if an invisible economic fence kept public-housing hopefuls away. A healthy mix of public and private housing would reaffirm, by contrast, Singapore's identity as common social property, and prevent the market from creating divisive housing geographies.