A toast to an improbable nation: The first HDB new town

From 'gangster land' to home sweet home

(Above) Construction of Toa Payoh began in 1965.
(Above) Construction of Toa Payoh began in 1965.PHOTO: HOUSING BOARD
(Above) Construction of Toa Payoh began in 1965.
(Above) Construction of Toa Payoh began in 1965. PHOTO: HOUSING BOARD
A crowd (above) gathering at a balloting exercise in 1966 for the first batch of home-ownership flats in Toa Payoh.
A crowd (above) gathering at a balloting exercise in 1966 for the first batch of home-ownership flats in Toa Payoh.PHOTO: HOUSING BOARD
The new town was developed based on the HDB’s new neighbourhood concept, with a town centre and each small 
neighbourhood having its own facilities, such as hawker centres, wet markets (above, in 1972), shops, clinics and playgrounds.
The new town was developed based on the HDB’s new neighbourhood concept, with a town centre and each small neighbourhood having its own facilities, such as hawker centres, wet markets (above, in 1972), shops, clinics and playgrounds.PHOTO: HOUSING BOARD
Madam Lim Geok Chuan, 92, and her husband, Mr Tan Meng Choon, 99, were among the earliest residents in Toa Payoh new town. They moved there in 1969 and still live in the same three-room flat today.
Madam Lim Geok Chuan, 92, and her husband, Mr Tan Meng Choon, 99, were among the earliest residents in Toa Payoh new town. They moved there in 1969 and still live in the same three-room flat today. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

For many who were resettled in Toa Payoh, the move was not without some trepidation

When Madam Lim Geok Chuan moved from a kampung house in Upper Thomson to the first Housing Board new town, Toa Payoh, it was with her family - and a small flock of chickens.

Most of the birds ended up in the family cooking pot as Madam Lim, her husband, their seven children and her mother-in-law settled into their three-room flat. However, one of the birds was presented to a neighbour as an introductory gift.

Fifty years after construction started on the first of several new towns entirely built and planned by the HDB, there are no clucking kampung chickens. But Madam Lim, 92, and her 99-year-old husband, Mr Tan Meng Choon, still live in the same second-floor flat that they moved into in 1969.

RELUCTANT TO MOVE HOUSE

We spent hard-earned money to build the (kampung) house, so when we had to let it go and be resettled, my heart really ached.

MADAM LIM GEOK CHUAN

At first, there was only one other household on the same floor. But Madam Lim soon had friends on many other floors, as the block filled up with fellow pioneers. It was a change from the Tans' former home in Hai Lam Sua kampung. The zinc-roofed houses were scattered and isolated: "One here, one there," recalled Madam Lim.

Running water and an inside toilet were other HDB pluses. "Here, you don't have to fetch water from the well," said Madam Lim. And the kampung toilet had been a hole in the ground outside. "When you went in the middle of the night and saw the leaves of banana trees waving, it was scary," she said, laughing.

  • 36,000

    Number of housing units built in Toa Payoh new town 

    6,000

    By 1969, the average number of families being resettled by the Government each year

     6 

    Average number of people living in an HDB flat in 1968

    3.4

    Average number of people living in an HDB flat today

She also appreciates having shops close by. Toa Payoh, or "big swamp" in Hokkien, was planned around the HDB's new neighbourhood concept, with a town centre and each small neighbourhood having its own facilities.

"In the kampung, when we went to the shops, we always had to walk, walk, walk," she said.

When they moved in, the HDB block right in front of theirs boasted several provision shops, a cloth shop and one selling household goods. Today, it also has hair salons, a bank and a furniture shop.

  • HOUSING MILESTONES

  • • 1960: The Housing Board, replacing the Singapore Improvement Trust, begins building rental flats.

    • 1964: Singaporeans can buy HDB flats for the first time, under the Home Ownership for the People scheme.

    • 1965: Construction begins in Toa Payoh, the first satellite town entirely planned and built by the HDB. First tenants move in the following year.

    • 1968: Home buyers can use Central Provident Fund savings to pay for their flats.

    • 1971: Five-room flats are introduced. Home owners can now sell their flats.

    • 1980: First prefabrication contracts awarded for flats in Hougang, Tampines and Yishun. By the 2010s, prefab components will form 70 per cent of new HDB buildings.

    • 1989: The Ethnic Integration Policy is introduced to prevent enclaves from forming in HDB estates.

     1990: Estate renewal begins, with the start of the Main Upgrading Programme.

    • 1995: The Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme is launched to replace old flats.

    • 1998: Studio apartments provide an additional housing alternative for those aged 55 and above.

    • 2010: The HDB's one-millionth flat is built as part of Treelodge@Punggol, the first "eco precinct" with green features such as solar panels.

    • 2013: Singles are allowed to buy subsidised flats directly on their own, for the first time.

The neighbourhood concept has endured and evolved, with malls, green spaces and sports courts among the amenities that today's planners provide for.

In the 1950s, before the new town - comprising 36,000 housing units - was built, Toa Payoh was home to about 21,000 people who lived mostly in squatter houses. With the advent of public housing, just over a third of Singapore's residents lived in such housing, compared with over 80 per cent today.

But initially, the Tan family, like many who were forcibly resettled, did not want to move to the new town. "People said Toa Payoh was not a good place. There were a lot of gangsters and thieves," recalled Madam Lim.

There was some sadness, too, as Madam Lim, who used to tend the garden and livestock while her husband worked in construction, pointed out: "We spent hard-earned money to build the (kampung) house, so when we had to let it go and be resettled, my heart really ached."

For about a year after being notified of resettlement, the family stayed on. Government officials came by to measure their land, to calculate the compensation.

By 1969, an average of 6,000 families were being resettled each year, with the HDB paying $5 million or about $850 per family on average.

Resettled families were compensated with government housing and cash grants. The Tans were allocated a second-floor flat, but thought it was too low. But when bulldozers came for their neighbours' kampung houses, they decided to take it.

Ten people living in a three-room flat was not much more crowded than in a kampung house, though the Tan family was a bit larger than the norm. In 1968, there was an average of six people in each HDB household. Today, it is 3.4.

Over the decades, the HDB flat has gained the dual role of home and asset, with owners keeping an eye on the resale market and pondering gains on premium projects such as Pinnacle@Duxton.

As for Madam Lim, did she miss her old place? "A little, at first. But not any more. This is home."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'From 'gangster land'to home sweet home'. Print Edition | Subscribe