Housing advocacy in Singapore: Policy research as practising dissent

Academic Views / Saturday, March 9th, 2024

Housing advocacy in Singapore: Policy research as practising dissent

Healthy societies require disagreement, where ordinary people take a critical interest in public affairs. Where channels of dissent are hampered, research provides vital resources and opportunities for critique and resistance. Research can reveal how society is faring, provoking fresh imaginations of alternatives, and enlarging space for participation. My experience conducting homelessness research in Singapore illustrates what such dissent can achieve.


The first responsibility of research is to discover empirical facts. This may seem obvious but in Singapore, knowledge about many social issues is still rudimentary. In some cases, there have simply been no attempts to find out. Before 2019, the full scale of homelessness was never studied. Such an omission is itself a policy decision. Sometimes, available information is not disclosed. In the UK, data collected by national statistical bodies are open to the public, while in Hong Kong, data samples are available to researchers. Yet in Singapore, researchers lack standard channels to access data on household incomes, work and wages, and CPF savings and withdrawals. By gathering and reporting information, researchers dispel opacity.

Research findings can challenge how problems are framed in policy narratives, grounding them in facts and lived experiences. In policymaking, solutioning actually comes late in the day. How we make sense of an issue determines how we respond to it. Once the definition of an issue solidifies, the range of politically viable policy choices quickly narrows. Governments are therefore highly sensitive to public discourse and invest significant energy in shaping narratives about controversial issues.

Accurate language helps us to recognise problems correctly. Policy circles in Singapore tend to replace internationally recognised terms with local jargon. Instead of ‘pension’, we say ‘CPF’ (Central Provident Fund). In Parliament and policy documents, ‘poverty’ becomes ‘low-income households’. Cleaning and security jobs are not ‘low-wage’ but ‘lower-wage’. Such euphemisms promote exceptionalism and hinder comparisons with other countries. Research that uses the right language invites international scrutiny, reminds policymakers of their responsibilities, and help to inform citizens.

For instance, ‘social housing’ traditionally refers to housing provided by the state at sub-market rents on the basis of need.  ‘Public rental housing’, in Housing and Development Board (HDB) terminology, devoid of such history and social responsibility, may adopt a different set of principles and priorities.[1] Greater need for subsidised housing due to homelessness, disability or single parenthood are not formally considered during applications for HDB rental flats. In fact, unwed single parents face explicit discrimination in housing regulations compared to married couples and widows.[2] Appraising this regime from the vantage point of social housing reveals how far it has strayed from its primary responsibilities.


For the most part, policy choices have predictable and well-documented consequences. Educational inequality, low wages and old-age poverty are not random phenomena that catch policymakers by surprise; they are foreseeable policy outcomes that decision-makers have chosen to accept.

A country’s approach to social welfare is fundamentally defined by the way it distributes responsibilities between the state, market and family (Esping-Andersen, 1999).[3] Its decision on this fundamental question constrains how problems are addressed—with known advantages and sacrifices. Singapore operates a liberal welfare state. Social needs are to be met through individual market participation with support from the family; collective problem-solving through state intervention is looked upon with aversion. The predictable consequences are high inequality from market competition and a heavy burden on families.

For example, the CPF translates wage inequality in working age to income inequality in retirement, because it does not pool contributions or redistribute resources between individuals. Dependence on private childcare providers penalises parents who take care of children themselves, putting children from different economic backgrounds on unequal footing and discouraging parenthood. To students of social policy, these are known costs in a liberal welfare regime. But Parliament and mainstream media do not afford a space for serious consideration of alternatives. Countries that achieve lower inequality and higher fertility through a more solidaristic approach—such as public childcare, unemployment insurance and universal pensions—are cast as morally suspect and financially unsustainable.

Research aids imagination by making the argument that change is possible and indeed necessary for different results. We interrogate existing policy choices, reveal the linkages between ideology and outcomes, refute claims that there is no other way, study the alternatives and urge reform.

Policy standards are critical too. Benchmarks for basic needs and public services, stating explicitly what is required for people to thrive and how public services must help to meet these requirements, state a commitment to improving people’s lives and accepting accountability. Research provides a rational basis for developing and monitoring these standards. I have been working with collaborators on the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) project since 2017, to determine the income that different households need for a basic standard of living in Singapore.[4] Households’ actual incomes, wages and public schemes can be compared against the results. We also argue for the adoption of housing standards which specify the minimum space that households of different sizes need.

Progress is slow. The Gini coefficient is now regularly reported, but it is based on partial data (i.e., work incomes only instead of total household incomes), and targets are not set. The HDB applies space standards to private landlords, but not in social housing where the HDB is itself the landlord.[5] Adoption of a poverty line is fiercely resisted. Perhaps the fear is that standards draw attention to policy gaps, but ordinary people already know what a basic standard of living looks like, and they know some are struggling. Looking away will not improve things. Setting standards for our society and committing to achieving them will.


Effective policymaking is a loop where decisions trigger consequences and feedback, leading to remedial action. When feedback channels are broken, policymaking loses important information and a connection to reality. Sensible and organised criticism is not the norm in Singapore, for many reasons out of the reach of research. But research that promotes participation can help.

To participate is to influence decisions that affect our lives, in solidarity with others. This requires, first, that we speak about our experiences and learn about the experiences of others. A few years ago, while documenting the relocation of a social housing community to make way for redevelopment in They Told Us to Move: Dakota—Cassia,[6] we saw tenants hesitate to criticise the relocation which caused them much hardship: “They are government, we are only citizens, we cannot say anything.” Housing rights even in the public housing sector are defined by wealth and ownership.  Tenants in social housing had learnt that they were targets of charity, not citizens accessing public services. Their only socially acceptable sentiment was gratitude. Research carves out a space where people, especially those most disadvantaged, can tell their stories in their own voices. It trusts that people want to learn about society, debate the future and find ways to get there.

Research can model a rational, critical, responsible and respectful style of communication. Instead of telling people what they cannot say, researchers ask questions, listen and make sense of what they find. They then report discoveries impartially.

In an environment where information is tightly managed, this way of understanding reality has both symbolic and practical value. Apart from revealing information that might otherwise be obscured, it urges honest engagement with reality and signals that knowledge should not be feared. Not all research ‘looks for problems’, but all research is about testing and challenging current thinking. Academic critiques that question current practices improve the balance of our public discourse. Researchers must always reveal their identities and methods, and this transparency provides a firm foundation for responsible dialogue.

Many in my generation grew up with few opportunities to practise or witness this kind of communication. Questioning government actions and discussing hardships that were not officially acknowledged were seen as risky. As a result, policymakers had little practice in receiving and using feedback. These days, when speaking at public events, I remind myself that openly criticising public policies is not yet a social norm. Especially when a government representative shares the stage, I articulate criticisms plainly and directly. I avoid hyperbole and euphemism alike. I speak in a calm and respectful tone. I do not condescend, raise my voice, or take more than my allocated time. On occasion, when I am the first speaker to voice criticisms this way, it shifts the tone and encourages others to speak more candidly too.

Studying homelessness

In 2019, with the help of research assistants and volunteers, I conducted the first nationwide street count of homeless people in Singapore. This was repeated in 2021.

The research sought to recognise a population that was almost invisible and whose voices were not heard. There was (and still is) no policy department focused on a national strategy on homelessness. The most explicitly relevant unit was an enforcement team that administered the Destitute Persons Act and facilities in which persons fitting the definition of destitution could be involuntarily institutionalised under the law. There were no official reports or even basic information on the number of homeless people in Singapore, who they were and where they could be found. Occasionally, in Parliament, numbers were provided based on homeless persons who had contact with public and social services. These turned out to be underestimations.[7]

Official statements stressed that persons sleeping in public places could be (or have been) homeowners. This kept intact the Singapore success story, with near-universal homeownership achieved through public housing as the centrepiece. Suggesting that a rough sleeper was not really homeless if they used to own a flat cast doubt on the very notion of homelessness. Implying financial imprudence also reinforced negative stereotypes. I believed research could confront misunderstanding with fact. Counting would make the problem real and difficult to ignore. Individuals can be depicted as anomalies; a nationwide picture compels us to contemplate our economy, society and policy choices.

Volunteer fieldworkers were partly a necessity because of the geographical scale of a nationwide count. It also allowed people to contribute to a cause they cared about but had little access to, and to take part in a collective effort outside officially sanctioned channels. When findings in such studies are not favourable, an individual researcher may be accused of personal bias. It is harder to dismiss hundreds of volunteers. But we had to put in greater effort to ensure research rigour—through training, fieldwork support and careful data checking. Most volunteers were members of the public responding to an open call. We also roped in social workers and experienced outreach volunteers from more than 20 NGOs.

I wanted readers to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the homeless persons we met. In the first count, fieldworkers were asked to record observations of homeless persons and their surroundings in their own words. In 2021, we also did in-depth interviews with residents in a homeless shelter. Their stories of hardship, of sleeping in public places for years at a stretch—especially for women—are some of the harshest I have heard in my career. We heard how ordinary people struggled to survive in extreme poverty and ran out of options. We could feel their fatigue and sense of defeat. I documented these in the research reports,[8] which are publicly accessible on our university website.

Throughout, I informed the government of my plans, gave regular updates and shared my findings before the public release. This process was not without tension. The room for honest and respectful engagement that does not compromise research objectivity can feel very tight. I said yes only to reasonable requests and always explained my decisions. I hoped such engagement would encourage confidence within the civil service to support independent research in future. Some civil servants might have preferred that the study did not take place at all. But in others, I saw deep dedication towards the welfare of homeless people and excitement, even, that the issue could finally be tackled in the open.

What dissent does

Some social workers were worried that participation might get them into trouble, in a sector where organisations and careers depend heavily on state funding.[9] Yet many stepped forward in the end. The public volunteers raised the sharpest questions. One asked how the study would challenge stereotypes of homeless people; another demanded assurance that I would not disclose specific location information to the authorities and put homeless persons at risk of institutionalisation. This process forged community, trust, capacity and action. In total, 480 volunteers took part in the first count and over 200 in the second. Many participated twice.

As we released our research, homelessness became increasingly visible, with sustained media interest and even features in mainstream newspapers on civil servants joining outreach volunteers. Because civil society in Singapore faces great pressure, researchers cannot simply pass findings to advocacy groups and hope for change. For research to reach the public, researchers must provide the legs. I continued to engage through academic publications, media interviews, commentaries, podcasts, public seminars and school talks. I have spoken and worked with students, architects, artists and educators. With each engagement, the space for collective reflection, dialogue and criticism enlarges.

Homelessness is no longer taboo and now firmly recognised in the policy agenda. Our findings were debated in parliament. The government created a network to coordinate services among volunteer groups and public agencies. The data have been used for service planning. The government has also released results from their own official street count for the first time and committed to future counts. Their study largely replicates our research concepts, method, fieldwork plan and analysis. Their report likewise carefully explains the research decisions before presenting detailed data, though policy criticism is visibly absent and scientific analysis gives way to policy promotion in parts.

An issue that has always been in plain sight feels like it has only just been fully and officially acknowledged. This is evidence of what can be achieved when public knowledge, interest and concern gather momentum. It also reminds us that corralling public discourse can profoundly shade our understanding of reality.

Imagining alternatives remains the hardest challenge. The research points to low wages and inadequate social housing as major barriers to exiting homelessness, calling for a policy approach based on meeting housing needs rather than promoting ownership, for instance by increasing access to social housing, setting space standards and providing longer tenancies.[10] Official narratives, on the other hand, stress the role of family support and individual circumstances. But things have started to shift. Recently, a disused school building was converted to dormitory-style rental housing with individual bedrooms. This is not enough—all social housing should meet basic standards of space and privacy—but it is a start.

There is a temptation to portray advocacy as clear-minded decisions, thoughtful actions and foreseeable results. Truth is, a project involving multiple parties over several years could have been derailed by many forces. Moreover, universities currently reward research that does not require extensive fieldwork and that circulates rapidly within academic circles rather than public-facing work. In this environment, work that is already risky and demanding can become draining and, at times, deeply isolating. I have described what research can do, should do, but in reality, academic effort can be easily diverted in the face of career priorities and political pressure. For every study like the homelessness project, many more are simply not attempted.

Progress on housing advocacy has gone further and quicker than I imagined possible, thanks to volunteers, social workers and student research assistants who stepped up when the consequences were not clear, in a space that did not officially exist. The homelessness project illustrates how the practice of dissent—discovering facts, setting standards, interrogating narratives, challenging policy choices, drawing attention to overlooked experiences and modelling responsible criticism—can begin to change policy and society. And how research—in a place where recognition, imagination and participation cannot yet be taken for granted—can defend our freedoms to see, to wish and to act.

Ng Kok Hoe is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Case Insights Unit at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where he also leads the Social Inclusion Project, a research programme dedicated to analysing the role of public policies in creating opportunities for participation.


[1]. Ng Kok Hoe, 2020, “Social housing,” UN Habitat Housing Practice Series – Singapore, pp. 10–27. United Nations Human Settlements Programme, https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2020/08/singapore_-_housing_practise_series.pdf

[2]. Ng Kok Hoe, Teo, You Yenn, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod, Stephanie Chok and Wong Yee Lok, 2021, What people need in Singapore: A household budgets study. https://whatsenough.sg/key-findings-mis2021/

[3]. Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Social foundations of postindustrial economies (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[4]. Ng Kok Hoe, Teo You Yenn, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod and Ting Yi Ting, 2019, What older people need in Singapore: A household budgets study. https://whatsenough.sg/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/what-older-people-need-in-singapore-a-household-budgets-study-full-report.pdf

[5]. Ng Kok Hoe and Neo Yu Wei, 16 February 2018, “HDB should apply its own occupancy rules to rental housing,” The Straits Times. https://www.nus.edu.sg/newshub/news/2018/2018-02/2018-02-16/HDB-st-16feb-pA19.pdf

[6]. Eds. Ng Kok Hoe and Cassia Resettlement Team, They told us to move: Dakota—Cassia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019).

[7]. Ng Kok Hoe, 2019, Homeless in Singapore: Results from a nationwide street count, pp. 12–13. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/faculty-publications/homeless-in-singapore.pdf

[8]. Ibid.; Ng Kok Hoe and Jeyda Simren Sekhon Atac, 2022, Seeking shelter: Homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/research/social-inclusion-project

[9]. Ng Kok Hoe and Neo Yu Wei, 2019, “Housing problems and social work advocacy in a home-owning society,” Journal of Social Service Research, 46(5), pp. 671–684. https://doi.org/10.1080/01488376.2019.1622624

[10]. Ng Kok Hoe and Jeyda Simren Sekhon Atac, 26 August 2022, “Accessible and adequate housing key to tackling homelessness,” The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/accessible-and-adequate-housing-key-to-tackling-homelessness