Written by Dr. Lai Chee Kien; Images from author's collection.
On 10 July 1939, a new method of development for landed property in Singapore was announced in the pages of The Malaya Tribune, for the proposed King Albert Park Estate. Situated on a small hill at the fringe of the city, with major road connections to both town and Johore, the estate subdivision and the sale method of its plots became the harbinger for future larger-scale land parcel developments for landed residential property in Singapore, as the outskirts and rural areas gradually became residential zones.
The claim of being up-to-date and “modern” was the provision of several infrastructural aspects such as asphalt roads leading to each of the 31 subdivided plots within the estate, along with drains, septic tanks, water and electrical connections. These were included in the plot purchases managed by King Albert Park’s developer Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (CFEO), who offered the possibility of cash sales, installment payments, or mortgage plans. Owners could employ their own architects if they didn’t use the developer’s. Up until this time, potential house owners on the island had to negotiate with the colonial government or private landowners regarding land purchase, and had to arrange and pay for the abovementioned “extras” separately.
Incorporated in Belgium in 1907 and backed by several banks in France and Belgium, the CFEO invested in land and properties in many cities in China, including designing and constructing them. Branches were established in Tientsin, Shanghai, Hankow, Peking, Tsinan and Hong Kong. It was incorporated in Singapore as a housing and loans bank as well as estate and housing agents from 1927. From 1934, CFEO developed properties and estates including those at Holland Hill, Loyang, Garlick Avenue, King Albert Park, Queen Astrid Park, Camden Park, Leedon Park, Princess Elizabeth Estate, Binjai Park, Frankel Estate, Opera Estate, and Namly Park etc. After its assets were nationalized by China in 1955, CFEO operated only in Hong Kong and Singapore, but was liquidated in 1959. It was a large player in the local private housing market amongst other developers, not unlike Bukit Sembawang (1968) who later developed estates like Seletar Hills Estate (2,500 houses) and Sembawang Hills Estate (1,000 houses).
Apart from private housing developers in Singapore, two other housing organizations dating from the colonial era were involved in the development and construction of housing estates, namely the building societies and co-operative housing societies. The larger of two building societies was the Malaya and Borneo Building Society (1956), incorporated earlier as the Federal and Colonial Housing Society in 1950. The Federal and Colonial Building Society was started to provide houses for the lower income group of colonial government officers via financial schemes. It constructed 1,200 houses in Sennett Estate and 900 at Serangoon Gardens. It also serviced mortgages, with 16,056 accounts and a sum total of SGD27.2 million by 1965. To reflect its subsequent status, the society was divided into two entities in 1969 as the Singapura Building Society Ltd and the Malaysia Building Society Berhad. The Singapore branch, now called Singapura Finance, is still in existence.
The other form of private housing – co-operative housing – was developed by the Singapore Government Officers Co-Operative Housing Society Limited (SGOCHS, established in 1948). The co-operative movement started in 1925 in Singapore with the establishment of societies to aid poorer members in colonial service, mainly via thrift and loan schemes. It continued well after Singapore attained Independence, and in its heyday, over 100 co-operatives were registered in the 1960s. At its height, the SGOCHS had 5,000 members in the society, and housing were sold to them at a range of $7,500 to $16,700, including freehold land in estates they developed. Its first estate project was Paya Lebar Gardens with 156 houses, followed by Thomson Road Estate, Cambridge Road Estate, Mayflower Gardens, Pulasan Road Estate, Windsor Park. Its last project, Changi Co-op Gardens, was uncompleted and which led to the SGOCHS closing down in 1979. At Paya Lebar, its main road was named Rochdale Road after the “Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers”, the first co-operative formed in 1844.
A special case of co-operative housing is what is known as the Teachers’ Estate in Upper Thomson, developed in 1968 by the Singapore Teachers’ Union. A large number of teachers benefitted from the scheme, notwithstanding the distance of the estate from town. Leaders of the union proceeded to purchase a plot of land on uneven terrain lower than the main road, and employed its own contractors and architects. The houses were sold to members at a cost of SGD 24,000 to 26,000, depending on the house type and location within the estate. The union building is located within the estate itself, and the different roads were named after literary figures like Tagore, Li Po, Tu Fu, Omar Khayyam, Kalidasa, Iqbal and Munshi Abdullah. Besides having a restaurant within the union premises, a row of shops provided services such as laundry, provisions as well as a bakery and an eggs distributor. A garden space is also provided for estate residents.
As may be observed, both private and civil sector developers contributed to the construction of freehold, landed housing estate properties in Singapore. While several of the plots in the early estates may be now classified as good class bungalow lots, we note that the overall result of such developments provided modern homes for the emerging middle class after the Second World War. In that respect, we should also register the idea that co-operative housing and housing societies were institutions that were important in such residential provision. The post-war period also saw uncertainties in the real estate transactions due to political instability. At a time when corrupt practices such as the “tea-money scandal” were rife, and building and material costs were fluctuating, such quasi-governmental entities assured its members and purchasers of a regular and structured path to home ownership.
Private housing thus alleviated the housing need despite the housing provision by the Singapore Improvement Trust and the Housing Development Board. In order to create such estates, land was cleared and shaped to accommodate their construction, and opened up the “hinterland” of Singapore in the outskirts. Frankel Estate, a tract of 413 acres of land developed by CFEO in 1946, was a large coconut plantation on undulating land before it was developed. In order to service the estates, modern sanitation as well as proper roads and connections of drains and electrical supply were correspondingly developed. Such developments also “aided” in clearing squatters in those estates who settled there illegally prior to estate construction. CFEO had to build 160 homes for the squatters at Frankel Estate in 1951 so that the construction of the works could be expedited. In the case of SGOCHS, its last project of Changi Co-op Gardens could not expel the squatters on the chosen site. Without the mobility of resources such as CFEO, and being a semi-public entity, the disputes with squatters eventually forced SGOCHS to be closed down.
Such housing estates also provide social amenities like schools, clubhouses, religious buildings such as churches, and post offices. Many everyday services like provision shops, supermarkets, cinemas, barbers, bakeries etc. were also constructed within the estates. Green spaces and parks provided much relief in the landscape for posterity, perhaps even the Lentor Stream which was recently removed. In the case of co-operative housing, the residents of estates are of a particular social class and worked as civil servants, or as teachers in the case of Teachers’ Estate. This fact created commodious relationships and a friendly atmosphere often not found in other estates, perhaps until its residents sold off their properties. Due to the remoteness of such estate areas, they also provided incidental employment in the early days for dwellers in nearby villages and kampongs, such as baby sitting, gardening or for itinerant traders and hawkers.
Over a long duree, we may also regard these housing estate areas, in its entirety over Singapore, as a form that maintained low-rise areas against the frenetic reach for height in public housing and condominiums, a heritage in scale, perhaps, for the next generation.