Public Housing as a factor in Singapore’s social harmony

The following is written with the GCE Cambridge ‘O’ Level Social Studies (Syllabus 2204) in mind. Specifically, it aims to reply in some senses the question set in 2009. It is not strictly speaking a typical model essay.

The first challenge to define ‘social harmony.’ It is not defined in the officially recognised texts. (I also confirmed this with a contact from the public education service and plowing through the official textbook). But if we take the point from Nurhidayah Hassan’s EU Centre working paper, racial and religious harmony (multiculturalism) is a subset of social cohesion/harmony. Perhaps to take things further, it may therefore imply the dissolution of ethnic markers where one is not marked as an Eurasian or Indian but rather a Singaporean period. This was by then Presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bok in 2011.

Going back to Nurhidayah’s paper, there are several dimensions. Socially, the Ethnic Integration Policy begun in 1989 allowed for a greater mix of ethnic groups in housing estates. In a block for instance, there may be no more than 87% of Chinese. This creates the conditions for interaction especially in common recreation areas unlike single ethnic estates. However, this does not mean that people would definitely interact. Some may prefer staying at home. In the most negative cases, increased proximity results in conflicts over the smell of curry or even joss paper burning. (refer to Cook Curry Day)

Economically, a public HDB flat can be sold for ‘social mobility’. In this way, it alleviates societal inequality. For example, one could sell a larger flat and move to a smaller one while keeping part of the profits. The problem here is that it assumes equal opportunities and resources for buying a flat. This is especially true for those at the lower rung of the income ladder where sometimes they are simply priced out of the market. Others like unmarried singles have faced difficulty in getting their first flat. The problem is more acute if one is already subject to ethnic or gender discrimination.

Having assessed housing as useful (if not necessary) but probably insufficient, what are the alternatives? Upon discussion with some youths, they proposed education. Students being assigned to complete group projects or coming together on Racial Harmony day which engenders greater understanding towards each other. There are additional avenues like Co-curricular activities as well. This overcomes the inertia and lack of activity discussed above. Moreover, the young arguably being less set in their ways would be more open to integration.

Another arm to this is National Service. Similar to the above, people at age 16 or 18 are conscripted into group settings. They train, grumble and in many aspects grow together. Many a conversation have started or revolved around one’s full time service, be that under the Minstry of Defence or Home Affairs. The shared experiences created common bonds. Nonetheless, most females are not part of the bonding process since they are excluded.

In conclusion, housing is one of many factors that work towards social cohesion and harmony. It however is a largely passive one unlike more intensive approaches found in education and National Service. A combination of the various policies would continue to aid cohesion and harmony.

Further reading:

As of 2007, 82% of the population lived in HDB flats.