When The Little Engine That Could . . . Couldn’t. Public Housing in Singapore

cemetery and workers' housing in Singapore
Cemetery and dormitory photo by Rudy Herman is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
A cemetery in Singapore. The buildings in the background are workers' dormitories.

Viewed by outsiders, Singapore has been remarkably successful in harnessing a social housing engine to pull its citizens to become world #1 in home ownership. Success has come about by a mix of socialist/communist style central-planning kinds of policies enacted by an otherwise aggressively free-market state.

Over the last year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed cracks in this fairy tale housing story founded upon “social housing for all citizens” which has morphed into home ownership and the security of equity wealth that comes with it.

“. . . for all citizens.” That simple phrase has become a stumbling block in this tale of success. Overlooked until this year, not only by admirers from afar but by Singapore’s citizens themselves, has been the housing conditions of a very large population of non-citizen migrant workers. Singapore rightfully owes this non-citizen population considerable gratitude as a foundation of its admirable economic success.

Far from gratitude, however, Singapore has, since its inception, permanently barred any path that would allow migrant workers to achieve citizenship. And over recent years it has provided increasingly sketchy, often dormitory style accommodations that crowd migrant workers together in what we are learning world-wide to be excellent conditions for spreading COVID-19.

And it has spread dramatically, just as might have been predicted, had anyone known better. Singapore has built its own Trojan Horse within its city walls and threatens its citizens along with its guest worker population.

For an exploration of Singapore’s astounding housing successes, together with the cracks in its foundation that have been caused by neglect of its migrant population, read more in The McGill International Review: The Paradox of Universal Housing in Singapore

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