Housing a city


The Economist recently ran an article on HDB and the public housing in Singapore. They are generally critical of government controls and the lack of liberty though they clearly admire the Singapore system. The one interesting criticism that I picked up however, seem to be quite an important perspective on the socio-political landscape in Singapore.

[E]xtremely high rates of home-ownership have helped make Singapore’s electorate unusually risk-averse.

While the example has to do with threats of upgrading projects being delayed or reordered – which I personally don’t think features that strongly in reality – I am reminded that reducing risky behaviours (which can ultimately manifest in the form of social unrest) was one of the reasons to push for home ownership. That one owns an asset gives one a stake is true. Of course, in the case of HDB, it is not the truest form of ownership but it got close enough and the ease of achieving ‘ownership’ compensates for all the strict controls in place.

As a matter of fact however, the housing policy and drive towards home-ownership does indeed having behavioural-modifying characteristics that transcends the socio-political landscape. It has affected the economy in that entrepreneurship by the lower strata of the society is curbed. Where regulations are strict and means of livelihoods needs to be officiated (eg. registering for a license, obtaining relevant approvals, renting a stall formally, etc.), the poor becomes ‘priced-out’, or ‘hassled-out’. Then comes the orthodoxy that getting ownership of a home is good combined with a rental market that is made hot by external capital, whatever capital one has left is ploughed into housing. The social leveller of entrepreneurship is hence restrained.

Education, which once was a bit more of a leveller, is close to losing its role. Once there were scholarship programmes to improve social mobility and give most students access to equal opportunities. But as learning becomes more vibrant with project work, the need to tap on resources and networks beyond the school, being from privileged backgrounds allows one to shine disproportionately. The growth of the tuition and supplementary education industry is a testament to the way financial muscle has made its way into disrupting education as a equaliser.

Risk-taking is important in the economy (not just for the lower strata but upper echelon as well) and even conservatism can be rightly channeled towards certain areas. This is where a new model of thinking about economics needs to find its champion in a city like Singapore where we’ve done well in being different in the globalised market economy.

Just musing.