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23.09.2021 Feature Article

Pigs In Skyscrapers

Pigs In Skyscrapers
LISTEN SEP 23, 2021

Cold Opening
You know something, back in the day, I was born in Singapore. I don’t care what you say, this sentence makes perfect sense.

I am suddenly transported to years back—back in the days when my friends and I, a bunch of pre-teens, would walk to-and-fro school because our parents didn’t have what they call ‘automobiles.’ It was fun—nothing sad there. I think we may have studied ‘countries’ in school this one fateful day, because the topic on the table that day, on our way home, was, ‘which country are you from?’ As though the answer wasn’t obviously ‘Ghana’. One chose America (the country, not the continent), another said he was from the country ‘London’ (and seemed very confused when I said, ‘So Britain?’). And me, having studied extensively all the world’s countries and their respective capitals thought I’d spice things up. ‘So where was I from?’ After racking my brain, I came up with “Singapore!” Then a newly-emerged developed nation, Singapore was an underdog who had traversed the road from ‘poor nation’ to ‘rich nation’ so singularly, so skillfully. This answer was bound to draw this question, ‘What is Singapore?’ And it was then that I, a proud Singaporean (I believe that is what they call them) would say, ‘Oh! Nothing but the most beautiful nation in the world.’ And that’s exactly what I said—and it wasn’t mere puff; Singapore had been adjudged the world’s most beautiful nation many times.

Needless to say, my homies were impressed, so to make matters a tad more ‘sophisticated’, I indicated that I was in fact born on a plane enroute to Singapore—over international waters. It was years later, in law school that I learnt the implications of my lie in international law. And it’s too much to unpack today.

Since we have started with Singapore, let’s continue today’s piece on Singapore.

When ‘Colonial’ is Never Better
This island lying in Southeastern Asia was, very much like our country and continent, victim of the White invasion. Founded as a trading post of the British empire, the nation remained under colonial rule, until the 1960s, when it gained independence—making it Ghana’s junior. The problems that plagued our nation, as a colonial territory, plagued this nation too. As a newly independent country, the uncertainty and uneasiness that plagued us as a people, plagued Singapore too. The economic and socioeconomic troubles developing nations go through, Singapore went through too. And our emphasis being still on the housing sector, Singapore faced a housing crisis—both during its time served under colonial rule, and its time as a newly independent nation.

There was an endemic of squalor-living—the average Singaporean either lived in slums, squatter settlements, compound houses, and what was termed shophouses (we see a lot of those in Accra. Remember we made mention of them in ‘#Stay home. #Stay Where?’). They are housing apartment shoehorned atop shops.

This was how bad the people had it under British colonial rule. The British colonial government ‘intending to do something’ about this situation instituted what was called the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1927 intended to make provisions for public-housing units for the vast number of un-housed and inadequately-housed Singaporeans. But whoever tells you a stranger can build your home for you is a liar bigger than my pre-teen friends and I ever were. Because ‘SIT’ it was, as this institution just ‘sat’ there, performing poorly on what it had set out to do. Twenty years later, this same imperialist wrote in its ‘British Housing Committee Report’ that Singapore was “one of the world’s worst slums’ and was ‘a disgrace to a civilized community.’ With this we can, with proof, conclude that the British was insulting its own self—because whose fault was it?

The housing deficit in the country grew worse by the day. It didn’t help that in 1939 through to 1947 the world was in a bloodbath. In the throes of WWII, a fledgling colonial nation like Singapore seemed to stand no chance at attaining good living for its citizenry. To make matters worse, the war caused an increased in immigration—yes ‘immigration’ not ‘emigration’; yes, a nation already burdened with its own plights had other nationals flooding into its borders. ‘Ebi didi bi’akye’, I guess. It wasn’t just urbanisation that the developing Singapore, facing a housing deficit, had to contend with, but immigration too.

But alas, there came independence. Singapore, like every colonial nation had high hopes for its independence. Independence was to break them free from the devastative claws of the White man; it was to launch them into a period where their destinies would be in their own capable hands. The only difference between Singapore and most of these past-colonial countries is that this nation actually hit its mark. The Singaporean could indeed manage their own affairs. One of the many ways in which the nation proved itself an A-student was when it came to handling its own housing issues.

Underdogs Together With Their Pigs
In the late 1950s, one of the nation’s premier political parties, the People’s Action Party (PAP) in its winning manifesto promised to address the housing deficit which had the large chunk of the nation’s low-income earners un-housed and poorly-housed. No surprise there. Any political party in a developing nation would promise same—because it does constitute the crux of every nation’s housing deficit matter. It is the low-income earners that suffer the most in such situations. So, there was nothing revolutionary about the promise by Lee Kuan Yew and his political party, PAP. What was revolutionary, however, was the following-through that proceeded the promise. In 1960, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was founded by the ruling PAP government to replace the defunct, White man’s SIT. With one of the party’s co-founder Lim Kim San, heading the Board, the nation saw a miraculous, religious adherence of politicians to their promises. In adherence to the government’s ‘Five-Year Building Programme, 1960 – 1965’, a slew of low-cost housing units were erected here and there—not haphazardly but according to carefully thought-out plans. The government set out to build an average 14,000 low-cost housing units per year to meet the housing deficit head-on, and that it did. Needless to say, these housing units exceeded expectations. The Singaporean government built for the poor what the Ghanaian rich calls luxury apartment—but did so in the ‘poor’ price range.

In 1966, having housed the vast majority of low-income earners, the government then proceeded on to the next segment—low-income earners who wanted to be homeowners. Because perhaps it isn’t the best of ideas to be the government’s tenant—at least, not for long. Singaporeans, having experienced steady increase in standard of living, had a good number of their low-income earning citizens in the position of means—enough to purchase their own homes. This, coupled with enabling payment schemes by the government, meant the nation’s poor could attain something many middle-income earners of other nations (developing and developed alike) dream of, and work assiduously towards their attainment. The government introduced the Home Ownership Scheme, which gave citizens the opportunity of owning their own homes—buying these public houses rather than renting them.

Trust human beings interspersed worldwide to be more complex than envisaged, because some citizens actually resisted moving from their squatter settlements into these new, plush complexes—can you imagine that? The Singaporean government, quite the parent, had to coax these resistant citizens into accepting this ‘offer’ of owning or renting their own homes. Payment schemes were put in place to ease the financial burden on the Singaporean—the government allowed persons to use their contributions to the Central Provident Funds (as someone once said “Nigeria’s Miss Ghana…” I say, Singapore’s SSNIT) as down-payment for these apartments. And when ‘coaxing’ wouldn’t work, the government had the law at its side—they could force the re-settlement of squatters into these beautiful apartments. Can you imagine that?—the Ghanaian government begging squatters to accept the offer to live in great apartments, at affordable prices, under excellent payment schemes, and to have the Ghanaian resist—can you imagine that?!.

The Singaporean government was a man with a plan.

The newly independent Singapore (from the periods between 1959 to 1969) had a housing deficit of about 147,000 units. The HDB estimated that about 14,000 units had to be built each year if this housing gap was to be bridged. The private sector, contributing its profit-minded quota to bridging this gap could however only provide about 2,500 units per year. No, the nation’s housing problem could not be left wholly in the hands of the private sector. Being incapable of meeting this enormous demand, and being so profit-minded that it would undoubtedly concentrate its effort into servicing the rich segments of the society (as seen in Ghana), what could only be expected if the Singaporean housing sector was left in the hands of the private sector was a state of total and utter havoc. But, you see, the Singaporean government was a man with a plan. By the fifth year of its five-year development plan, the HDB had built a total of 54,430 housing units. This island, being of nature a small nation, had comparatively little land mass. So, the government strategically built high-rise buildings—skyscraper housing units, and by its fifth year into its five-year plan, it had built over 50,000 of these housing units. The low-income earning Singaporean had quality of life and of living going for them. Let us quickly note that ‘targeted at low-income earners’ does not mean the government built coffin-home type apartments as seen in Hong Kong for these citizens.

Adverse Agglomeration
Typically, a developing nation has its city centers concentrated at few places. The agglomeration effect characteristic of industrialised nations are at their most extremes in developing nations—and that is not particularly a good thing. This leads to increased land prices in these congested centers, businesses are centralised in these locations, hence the nation’s low to middle-income earners, intending to cut down on housing costs, hence leaving at the far-end, outskirts of the cities, find themselves by necessity having to traverse long distances to undertake businesses in these city centers. We explored the catch 22 of this reality in ‘The Son of Man and The Concept of The Abode’ series. The Singaporean government outsmarted all these damning realities with their public housing initiatives—increase land costs, increase housing costs, over-centralisation and over-congestion of city and business centers, etc., by building mini-cities equipped with all necessities—basic and ‘luxurious’, commercial centers, schools, parks, sporting facilities, ‘non-polluting industries’, necessary institutions, etc. So then, the citizenry did not have to move long distances to access ‘cities’, cities were brought to their doorsteps—high-end cities, I might add.

But there was just this teeny tiny problem: the newly-independent, low-income earning Singaporean, typically living ‘subsistently’, largely agrarian, had chickens, pigs, and co., and wanted to bring them along. What do you expect? A person does not throw away their livestock just because you have offered them skyscrapers to live in. What will they eat all the way up there, in the air—birds flying past? As earlier mentioned, most of these low-income earners did not want to relocate from their squatter settlements and slums. It took, among others, a fire that rid about 16,000 peoples of their squalid-homes before most agreed to move.

But what is it our Muslim kinsfolk say? “If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed”, so the Singaporean government seeing how vital nature is for a people, and particularly, its low-income earners (as many of them by trade, deal with nature), have brought nature along to these skyscrapers. Hence, sky gardens, green walls, community gardens, etc., are the norm in these public housing units. At this point, Singapore, you are just showing off!

The government, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, also introduced the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) to cater for the housing needs of middle-income earners.

Finally, An Answer To The Question, ‘Why Are Many Ghanaians Not Millionaires?’

To ensure that these housing schemes actually catered for the target market—the many un-housed and poorly-housed citizens, the government put in place among others, laws that barred persons outside the categories of ‘low-income’ or ‘middle-income earners’ to access housing units specifically set aside for those segments of the population. Foreigners could not access these housing units—doing away with instances of rich foreigners causing the gentrification of these housing units, and shifting them from their primary purpose of serving the nation’s underprivileged populace.

From ground up, quite literally and metaphorically, the nation of Singapore built its housing sector. And this isn’t even a socialist nation. This isn’t even a natural-resource-rich nation. In fact, in rankings of natural-resource-poor-countries, one always finds Singapore listed.

I hate to dangle other nations in front of our faces, like a parent would do another’s kid, in front of their own kids, “Saying, why can’t you be like so-so-and-so?!” When, in fact, they are not around to witness so-so-and-so at their worst.

I hate to dangle other nations in front of us Ghanaian’s, as though to say, ‘why can’t you be like such-and-such country?’, because mostly these nations we make a mistake of dangling in front of our own faces are former imperialist nations—our former colonisers (ahem! and arguably present-colonisers), nations that were built off the backs, sweats, and blood of others—the African, the Caribbean, the Asian, nations that cheated their ways through their national journeys, these are the nations we dangle in front of our very own faces. So, I desist from mentioning the USA, UK, France, you know the list. But when our fellow underdog, our fellow-formerly oppressed colleagues, perform this wonderfully, man, we cannot help but write a whole article in praise of them—even if it means it be misconstrued as a slight against our own selves.

In the rankings of nations with the richest citizens, one always finds Singapore listed. A nation with more millionaires than it can count—one in every six Singaporean is a millionaire.

Millionaire? We barely have places to lay our heads in Ghana—how does one even become a millionaire, herh? I can argue with sufficient proof that had Jesus been born in Singapore, looking at the vast resources His Father has in heaven, the Son of Man would Himself have been a millionaire too on earth. But without a ‘stable’ pillow on which to place one’s head, how does one even strategise properly, and set out to become a millionaire, herh? Ghana, let’s take this housing issue much more seriously, because it seems our individual ‘millionaire’ status—that’s what’s at stake here. I don’t care what you say, this sentence makes perfect sense.

[Published in Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 15th September, 2021]

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