Home and precinct improvements in Housing Board towns have been a part of the agency's mission for more than two decades. When its Main Upgrading Programme to rejuvenate the oldest estates built in the 1960s and 1970s was winding down, $3.3 billion in taxpayer funds and owner contributions had been spent on new facades, lifts, optional extra rooms and designs for community sharing. Liveability improved hugely for some 130,000 households. Notably, the value of homes rose in tandem. This, to many people, was the icing on the cake - a payoff accruing to them from the HDB's programmes.
All of these endowments are now so much part of the scene here that some might take them for granted. But it is different in parts of Asia and even in Europe, where council and tenant neglect of state housing results in squalor and crime-infested neighbourhoods. The contrast with HDB estates can be traced to policy differences - state-provided housing, mostly rentals, forms only a small part of the accommodation stock elsewhere, whereas public housing is the choice of 80 per cent of Singaporeans, with home ownership a key feature.
The challenge here is to bridge the contrasts in home comfort and public amenities among older estates, fairly new towns and new-generation ones being planned. Upcoming developments slated for Bidadari, Punggol Northshore and Tampines North might feature smart systems, like household energy conservation, mechanised parking, clean waste disposal and monitoring of the frail elderly with remote sensors.
These might look like bells and whistles to the less technically inclined. But harnessing commercially available technologies to make living more pleasant, yet yield cost savings in cutting down on labour should not be dismissed. Of course, such improvements would look like questionable frills if older estates are left in their original state and not part of a general effort to improve the way people live and mix in HDB estates.
Not all would hanker for new technologies in what the HDB regards as "middle-aged" towns like Chua Chu Kang, Pasir Ris, Tampines and Marine Parade. These are places whose residents would not think of as under-provided. Residents in established estates might place greater value on their character and prefer to preserve familiar features.
To the extent desired by residents, refurbishment should be supported. Noteworthy is the HDB's relaxation of the age-of-origin criterion for neighbourhood renewal, besides speeding up of the Home Improvement Programme, which takes care of common problems like spalling concrete, structural cracks and inadequate bathrooms. More than just achieving a shiny new look, it's improving the quality of life that matters.