In just a few decades, Singapore, the Lion City, has become a center of mediation for international diplomacy, a state of excellence in terms of governance, research and development, the commercial and financial platform for Southeast Asia, and a leading example of the smart city. Singapore’s smart nation initiatives bring us, without transition, into the future with new technology. The city-state has successfully transformed its quality of life to one which is highly appreciated, where nature and biodiversity and cultural heritage are preserved.
Back in 1965, when Singapore gained independence from Malaysia, the country was bankrupt. Becoming independent was, for its then leader, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a major event implying heavy consequences and a challenging way to develop Singapore. Following this decision, Lee Kuan Yew held back his tears, shared his sorrow and fears, and faced up to his new responsibilities to make his tiny country a strong and independent nation. You can view a video of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his views on the Singapore-Malaysia separation here.
The Prime Minister’s fears became his strength and motivation to build a new nation. As a matter of fact, during this time, Singapore had:
– An area of approximately 580 km2
– 1.9 million people, 75% living in slums and mostly unemployed
– A poorly educated population
– No education system
– An ethnic mix: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian
– Various religious denominations: Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Muslims, Confucians, Catholics, Protestants, etc.
– Endemic criminality with triads, opium bars
– Little infrastructure
– No natural resources, little drinking water
– A hot and humid climate all year round, conducive to the proliferation of mosquitoes and tropical diseases.
Its main assets were its strategic geographical location between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, a deep-water port and a free zone, a legacy of the Compagnie des Indes, and some manufacturing industries.
It took a generation to transform an underdeveloped former British trading post into a garden city and a business centre of nearly 6 million inhabitants (+300%) and 720 km2 (+24%) with :
– A unique model of social integration
– 91 percent of Singaporeans owning their homes – a strong sense of belonging and national pride
– A high-performance education system: the National University of Singapore is Asia’s leading university for the third consecutive year, ranked 11th in the world’s top universities and Nanyang Technological University in 12th place.
– The commercial and financial platform of Southeast Asia – the world’s 4th largest financial centre
– One of the least corrupt countries in the world: ranked 4th out of 180 countries in the world by Transparency International (France is 23rd)
– A strong and diversified economy: 2nd largest commercial port in the world, a leading-edge industry (21% of GDP)
– An asset reserve of around 230% of GDP
– A GDP per capita in 2018 of nearly USD 64,580 (12th in the world) compared to USD 45,342 for France (ranking 33rd)
– Ranked 6th in the world by the WHO for the quality of its public health system
– Ranked 8th in the world for population health in the Bloomberg Index
How could such a miracle have happened?
Several factors contributed to this success: a sea port, its geographical location, and an economic model promoting tax-free trading. However, these factors alone cannot explain Singapore’s extraordinary success. Many countries have as many or more assets but few have developed this way in such a short time span. The key element Lee Kuan Yew bet on was Singapore’s most valuable resource – its people and their intelligence. Indeed, priorities such as providing education and public housing have created a national identity.
Let’s focus on public housing.
Following independence, one of the government’s priorities was to foster strong national unity and to create a united community. One way to do this was to give Singaporeans a stake in the new nation: public housing and home ownership.
Originally, the Singaporean model was not meant to provide public housing per se. In fact, it was designed to facilitate access to home ownership and ensured its integration in the city’s urban planning.
The government’s approach to developing its social housing was driven by strong values and social engineering. It began by humbly and scrupulously benchmarking different social housing models, including European ones, and identifying what worked – but more importantly, what didn’t. Then finally, it was led by the ambition to develop its own model adapted to Singapore’s unique situation.
Indeed, housing was not enough with regard to the benchmarking. The new team’s vision, at the time, was revolutionary. They thought about urban planning in the long term along with an inclusive approach. They not only wanted to quickly provide a roof over most people’s heads but also thought about desirable, accessible spaces to live in, surrounded by beautiful public areas in order to avoid new kinds of slums developing.
Dr. Liu Thai Ker, one of the Singaporean founders in charge of urban planning and on Lee Kuan Yew’s team for the Housing Development Board, confirms that Singapore’s main innovation was a social engineering approach in developing its model. This includes:
- One unique housing policy offered to both poor and rich people
- The politician’s role does not overlap with the professional’s one and vice versa (the politician says what and the professional says how)
- A multidisciplinary approach involving urban planners, architects, engineers, sociologists, etc.
You can follow an interview with Dr. Liu Thai Ker, award-winning architect and the father of city planning in Singapore here.
The result was stunning. In 1985, there were no more slums. The population was housed in simple, clean, comfortable and functional apartments.
In Europe, particularly in France, social housing has fragmented society. Conversely, in Singapore, social housing is a tool used to facilitate social inclusion, organise diversity, and to make Singaporeans owners of their homes.
According to Dr. Liu Thai Ker, Singapore’s model is applicable in any metropolis in the world, provided there is a real political will and a sense of common good. In his words, the purpose of city planning is to:
– Serve the people, so that they can have a decent life, and society is ready to take on challenges
– Serve the land, so that the land can be functional with the best infrastructures, and be sustainable, which implies cutting down global warming
Today, Europe could draw its inspiration from the Singaporean social housing model and contribute to a long-awaited miracle – the European Renewal.
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