Any spate of complaints over shoddy workmanship or defects at new Housing Board flats ought to be viewed seriously because it reflects ultimately on the HDB's reputation as the prime provider of housing in Singapore. Of late, there has been a troubling number of owners of Build-to-Order (BTO) flats in Punggol and Bukit Panjang, and of Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats from projects such as Centrale 8 in Tampines, Pasir Ris One and Trivelis in Clementi, who have cited defects or design flaws such as narrow corridors, wall cracks, uneven tiles on floors and choked toilets. While most flaws in the new BTO flats are surface imperfections that do not affect the building's structural integrity, these should not be dismissed as being minor.
The HDB was not involved in the development and sale of the DBSS public flats - a fact that would have been known to buyers at the point of purchase. However, the board still plays an active role, as it should, in ensuring a fair and satisfactory outcome in those housing transactions. The DBSS was suspended in 2011 after a public outcry over pricey units, but the buyers still come under the HDB's umbrella. The board's residual function in the DBSS is a source of reassurance that public housing, whatever its provenance, will be backed ultimately by high standards of probity and efficiency.
Appreciating this system, private developers should readily uphold their obligations under the scheme and act swiftly to address grievances. If minimum standards of safety are not met adequately, the authorities must step in. As for unfulfilled contractual promises, the proper recourse is to the courts when these are contested. However, to adopt the lowest point of a range where acceptable standards are concerned would not do in public housing, as what contractors do or fail to do involves not only their individual relations with buyers but also residents' relationship with the state.
Public housing involves national values which, while present in the private sphere as well, transcend it. That is why the HDB must continue to play a guardian's role in ensuring that any housing within its legal ambit fulfils its national mandate. This responsibility reflects the reality of Singapore. If there is a single public good that distinguishes the city-state from even more economically developed nations, it is the incomparable and irreplaceable role that public housing has played in converting sojourners and immigrants into citizens and residents. In place of the economic and ethnic ghettoes lurking in the architectural eyesores of sub-standard housing seen elsewhere, Singapore enjoys quality public housing.
Indeed, the skyline formed by HDB flats is one that citizens feel called upon instinctively to defend. The board owes it to all to ensure private developers abide by the purpose of public housing.