History of HDB and SIT in Singapore

During my other post on the oldest HDB flats in Singapore, it was intriguing that I learned that there was a previous version of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) called Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). 

Whether you are a local or a tourist, you will gain a deeper appreciation for the HDB flats and their significance in Singapore's story and how "Rome wasn't built in one day".

Condition of housing in Singapore before the establishment of SIT in 1927 (1906 to 1927)

Based on the NLB website, in 1906, W. J. R. Simpson, a professor of hygiene at King’s College, London, was commissioned by the colonial government to study and report on the sanitary conditions in Singapore. In his 1907 report, Simpson argued that poor housing conditions were a key factor in the spread of disease and cause of death in Singapore. 

He suggested reordering the built environment through reconstruction work and introducing back lanes and open spaces around the city.  Simpson further recommended that a sanitary board be established to assist the municipality in carrying out improvement schemes, as he believed that these schemes were too extensive to be handled by the municipality alone

  • In 1916, the president of the Municipal Commission wrote to the government suggesting the creation of a health trust.
  • In the Housing Commission report of 1918, it was recommended that a body of improvement commissioners, modeled after those of Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and Colombo, be established to carry out improvement and town planning schemes in Singapore. 

The government accepted the recommendation by the Housing Commission and recruited a technical expert for the post of deputy chairman of the Improvement Trust. The deputy chairman’s job was to investigate and work on the problems of the city prior to the formal establishment of the Improvement Trust. 

  • Edwin Percy Richards, commonly referred to as E. P. Richards, arrived in 1920 to take up the position, and the trust functioned as a municipal department under the Singapore municipality. He was born on 9 September 1873 and returned to the United Kingdom in 1927 before passing away on 14 November 1961.
  • After careful examination and thorough discussions, the housing commission recommended the establishment of an improvement commission. This suggestion paved the way for the birth of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1924.
  • While under the municipality, the trust carried out work on improvement schemes, back lane projects, and routine planning of the city. However, work proceeded at a slow pace due to the lack of legislative powers and manpower.
  • Plans were thus made to constitute the trust, and the department assisted in drafting the bill for the formal establishment of the Improvement Trust. The Singapore Improvement Bill underwent many revisions before it was passed by the Legislative Council in May 1927.

SIT The Predecessor of HDB (1927 to 1960)

Based on NLB SG, the objective of SIT was to “provide for the improvement of the town and island and Singapore”.

The chief executive officer of the trust was the manager.

  • In 1927, The first manager was W. H. Collyer, an engineer
  • L. Langdon Williams replaced him in 1930.
  • Upon Williams’s death in 1941, SIT architect J. M. Fraser took over as head of the trust until his retirement in 1958.

Initially, SIT was not given the authority to build housing for the general populace, except for those left homeless by its improvement schemes. In the early years, the SIT was largely engaged in city planning. One of its main tasks was to prepare and carry out the tasks outlined in the General Improvement Plan. This was not a comprehensive plan of Singapore but a record of existing developments with approved layouts and subdivisions. The trust added to the plan by developing new roads and open spaces as well as widening existing roads.

An amendment to the Singapore Improvement Ordinance in 1930 allowed the trust, with the approval of the governor, to erect buildings “as the Board may think fit”.  It was only in 1932 that SIT was given more powers to undertake building projects to accommodate the rapidly growing population. 

World War II broke out in December 1941 and the trust had built 2,049 houses and 54 shops in 14 years. However, construction stopped until the war was over in 1947.

The Housing Committee of 1947 recommended an immediate building program to alleviate the housing shortage after citing it as “a disgrace to a civilized community” and the average person-per-building density was 18.2 by 1947.

In response to the report,

  • the government granted the SIT a loan of $5 million for the public housing program. The trust’s housing policy focused on providing homes for lower-income groups.
  • SIT was also tasked to develop a master plan for Singapore

In terms of home building, 

  • In 1947, it opened a housing register with a rule that only persons earning $600 or less per month would be eligible for SIT housing.
  • Although construction costs were relatively high in the beginning, by 1953 the trust was able to develop low-cost rental housing that was affordable for the low-income group.
  • Between 1947 and 1959 (12 years), the SIT built 20,907 housing and shop units.

In terms of developing the master plan

  • In 1951, the trust appointed a survey and planning team to undertake the task of producing a master plan for Singapore’s development with the help of town planning consultant George Pepler.
  • The master plan was exhibited in 1956 to solicit public feedback.
  • In 1958, the government approved the final report of the master plan

In June 1949, the Housing Bill was introduced in the Legislative Council to provide for a housing trust that would undertake housing and development schemes in Singapore.

  • Later that year, a more comprehensive Development Bill covering planning, housing, and improvement under a development board was submitted to the Legislative Council. This bill was shelved in 1951 but formed the basis of the Singapore Improvement Bill that followed, which covered improvement and slum clearance, town and country planning as well as public housing. However, none of these bills came to fruition.
  • Finally, in 1958, the Planning Bill and the Housing and Development Bill were introduced in the Legislative Assembly and passed in 1959

Therefore the Planning Bill and the Housing and Development Bill passed, The SIT was dissolved on 31 January 1960. 

List of Estates Built by SIT  

Based on an agent website (as of June 2023) and NLB website, SIT improved and built the following estates:-

  • Unknown-named estate near Lorong Limau, the first houses ever built by SIT, built in 1932, demolished around 1970, and new HDB blocks were built. By 1940, the SIT had built 558 artisan quarters in this estate.
  • Tiong Bahru (pre-war), 20 blocks, about 700 flats, built-in 1936-1939, now conserved.
  • Tiong Bahru (post-war), 55 blocks, about 1200 flats, built in 1948-1953, 25 blocks were demolished around 2000.
  • New Bridge Road Estate (in Central), an unknown number of blocks built in 1938, was demolished in 1975, and replaced by Kreta Ayer Centre.
  • Near Upper Pickering Street (in Central), 5 blocks, 3 residential and 2 offices, 9 floors, built-in 1952 being the first high-rise public housing in Singapore and first buildings infamous for suicide jumpers. The last two were demolished in 2003.
  • Outram Hill (in Central), 3 blocks, 122 flats, built in 1953, do not confuse with Outram Park built by HDB in 1963.
  • Stamford Estate (in Central), 7 4-story blocks (1-7), 112 flats, 3 9-story blocks (11-13), 200+ flats, built in the 1950s, demolished 2004-2007 (blocks 8-10 “Selegie House” were added by HDB in 1963).
  • Winstedt Court (in Central), 3 blocks demolished around 2000.
  • Alexandra North Estate (in Bukit Merah), 75 blocks, most of them 3-story, estimated about 1200 units, built in the 1950s, demolished in 1990s.
  • Redhill Estate (in Bukit Merah), 21 7-story blocks, 882 flats, built in 1955, scheduled for demolition in 2017.
  • Silat Estate (in Bukit Merah), 15 3/4-storey blocks, 262 flats built in 1949/1952, demolished in 2011.
  • The unknown-named estate around Delta Avenue (in Bukit Merah), unknown block types, was demolished around 1980.
  • Guillemard Road Estate (in Kallang), mostly terraced houses, about 300-400 units estimated from an aerial photo, built-in SD 1957, demolished around 1990.
  • Kallang Airport Estate (in Kallang), 70 blocks of which 42 7-story, about 2600-2700 flats counted from an aerial photo, built-in SD 1958, 13 blocks were demolished around 1990, 40 blocks were demolished in 2000-2003, 15 of the remaining 17 blocks at Dakota Crescent scheduled to be demolished in 2016 (all rental).
  • Jalan Besar Estate (in Kallang), 17 blocks, built year unknown, demolished 1990s, Kerrisdale Condo sits there.
  • Rayman Estate (in Kallang), built year unknown, last seen in SD 1966 (maybe this the real name of the 1932 estate at Lorong Limau?)
  • Durham Estate and Owen Estate (in Kallang), 18 blocks of the unknown type built in the late 1940s, 17 of them demolished in 1970s and redeveloped as Kampong Java Estate. Block 25 Owen Road, a 2-story with 12 shops and 12 flats, was the first SIT block built after the war in 1947, it was demolished in 2013.
  • Norfolk Estate and Tasek Utara Estate (in Kallang), an unknown number of blocks and their type built late 1940s were demolished in the 1980s for Central Expressway.
  • Princess Elizabeth Flats Estate (in Kallang) known later as Farrer Park Estate, 19 3-story blocks, built in the early 1950s and demolished around 2000.
  • Princess Elizabeth Park Estate (in Bukit Batok), 24 blocks, built-in 1951-1952, demolished in 1996 (source: ijamestann.blogspot.com). 16 artisans shops and quarters, 84 flats in six 3-story blocks, next year 84 flats were added in two 7-story blocks.
  • St. Michael’s Estate (in Whampoa), build starting from SD 1958, was planned as a big estate of terraced houses, but just a few were built before SIT was dissolved, and HDB scrapped the original plans and built it using 10-story blocks. An unknown number of 9-story SIT blocks were built and demolished around 1990.
  • Temple Estate (in Toa Payoh), at least 39 3-story blocks, estimated 500 units, built in the 1950s, demolished in the 1980s.
  • Lake View Estate (n Bishan), 14 blocks of single or double-story terraced houses, built in the 1950s, demolished in 2000.
  • Bukit Panjang Estate (in Choa Chu Kang), 32 blocks of single-story terraced houses, built in SD 1958, demolished around 1990, land used by CCK blocks 150-159.
  • Queenstown New Town, details below.
  • Plus many small estates or isolated blocks in or around Central Area were demolished a long time ago and forgotten

HDB Taking Root (1960 to 2008)

The planning divisions responsible for the master plan, replanning, and development control previously under the SIT were taken over by the Planning Department under the supervision of then Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Its public housing program was taken over by the HDB, constituted on 1 February 1960 with the enactment of the Housing and Development Ordinance. Lim Kim San was appointed its first chairman.

During his term as HDB’s chairman from 1960 to 1963, Lim spearheaded the construction of low-cost public housing to tackle the housing shortage at the time. In slightly over three years, HDB managed to complete 26,000 flats. (compared to the 12 and 14 years SIT took then).

Compared with the cramped and unhygienic living conditions in shophouses and squatter areas, flats built by HDB seemed luxurious – they were spacious and equipped with basic services such as electricity, flush toilets, and piped water. By March 1976, more than half of the local population was living in HDB flats.

  • Besides those built by HDB, a limited number of public flats were also constructed between 1968 and 1982 by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in the Jurong and Sembawang industrial estates for low-income groups.
  • Between 1974 and 1982, the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC), which was set up in 1974, constructed housing for middle-income groups.
  • In 1982, HDB took over the management of JTC and HUDC flats and thus became the sole provider of public housing in Singapore. As of March 2008, 82 percent of the resident population lived in HDB flats (growing from 50% to 82% in 22 years).

It was quite interesting to read up on the history of SIT and HDB and it was much richer than I imagined. I didn't even delve deeper yet into the timeline as there was so much to read. 

Sky Hoon. Read Full Bio
Website Owner, Twitter-er
He has been trading since 2008. He started this blog to share the journey about option trading. He dabbled in stocks, bitcoin, ethereum (in Celsius Network), ETF (lazy Dollar Cost Averaging) and also built websites for fun. He used this as a platform to share my experiences and mistakes in trading, especially options which I just picked up.

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