Singapore Improvement Trust



Singapore Infopedia

Background

Formally established in 1927, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was initially tasked with improving the infrastructure of Singapore. This involved work such as drawing up general improvement plans, condemning insanitary buildings and constructing back lanes. In the 1930s, the SIT became directly involved in the construction of low-cost public housing, a project that escalated during the postwar years. The SIT was dissolved in 1960.The trust’s urban planning functions were taken over by the Planning Department under the supervision of the prime minister, and its public housing programme handed over to the newly established Housing and Development Board (HDB).

Conception of an improvement trust
Since the latter part of the 19th century, the colonial government in Singapore had become increasingly concerned with public health on the island. The mortality rate was high and there was fear that any outbreak of disease would negatively impact the trade of the settlement.1


In 1906, W. J. R. Simpson, a professor of hygiene at King’s College, London, was commissioned by the colonial government to study and report on the sanitary conditions in Singapore.2 In his report published the following year, Simpson argued that poor housing conditions were a key factor in the spread of disease and cause of death in Singapore. He suggested reordering the built environment through reconstruction work and introducing back lanes and open spaces around the city.3 Simpson further recommended that a sanitary board be established to assist the municipality in carrying out improvement schemes, as he believed that these schemes were too extensive to be handled by the municipality alone.4

Although the government did not establish a sanitary board, calls for a body separate from the municipality to take charge of improvement schemes continued.5 In 1916, the president of the Municipal Commission wrote to the government suggesting the creation of a health trust. In the Housing Commission report of 1918, it was recommended that a body of improvement commissioners, modelled after those of Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Colombo, be established to carry out improvement and town planning schemes in Singapore.6


Part of the Singapore municipality
The government accepted the recommendation by the Housing Commission and recruited a technical expert for the post of deputy chairman of the Improvement Trust. The deputy chairman’s job was to investigate and work on the problems of the city prior to the formal establishment of the Improvement Trust.7 Edwin Percy Richards, commonly referred to as E. P. Richards, arrived in 1920 to take up the position, and the trust functioned as a municipal department under the Singapore municipality.8

While under the municipality, the trust carried out work on improvement schemes, back lane projects and routine planning of the city. However, work proceeded at a slow pace due to the lack of legislative powers and manpower.9 Plans were thus made to constitute the trust, and the department assisted in drafting the bill for the formal establishment of the Improvement Trust. The Singapore Improvement Bill underwent many revisions before it was passed by the Legislative Council in May 1927.10


Establishment of the SIT

The Singapore Improvement Trust was formed with the enactment of the Singapore Improvement Ordinance on 1 July 1927.11 A board of trustees was vested with the powers of carrying out the provisions of the ordinance.12

The chief executive officer of the trust was the manager.13 The first manager was W. H. Collyer, an engineer, who was later replaced by L. Langdon Williams in 1930. Upon Williams’s death in 1941, SIT architect J. M. Fraser took over as head of the trust until his retirement in 1958.14

According to the 1927 ordinance, the general mission of the trust was “to provide for the Improvement of the Town and Island of Singapore”.15 Specifically, the trust was to draw up a general improvement plan, condemn insanitary buildings, initiate improvement schemes, provide housing for people made homeless from improvement schemes, supervise lands owned by the trust and carry out back lane work. However, the trust was not empowered to engage in large-scale construction of public housing.16

Funding for the trust came from an improvement rate levied on houses and lands within the municipal area with an equivalent contribution from the government. The trust could also tap on a $10-million government fund set aside for slum clearance.17

Work of the SIT
1927–1947
In the early years, the SIT was largely engaged in city planning. One of its main tasks was to prepare and carry out the tasks outlined in the General Improvement Plan. This was not a comprehensive plan of Singapore but a record of existing developments with approved layouts and subdivisions. The trust added to the plan by developing new roads and open spaces as well as widening existing roads.18


The trust also continued with improvement works and the construction of back lanes. At the time, it was believed that back lanes were the best way to reduce the congestion of back-to-back houses so that there would be better ventilation, more light and access to public infrastructure. Work on the back lanes intensified in the 1930s. The enthusiasm for back lanes had died down by the 1940s when Fraser, then manager of the trust, admitted that the long-term value of back lanes was “doubtful”. He argued that the reconstruction of a house in order to have a back lane reduced the space for accommodation, thus aggravating overcrowding and creating rehousing problems.19

In addition to constructing back lanes, the trust was authorised to declare buildings insanitary and order their demolition. In practice, however, it was difficult for the SIT to take action against owners of such buildings. In 1935, three owners of such properties took the SIT to court seeking writs prohibiting the trust from taking action on their properties. The chief justice granted the writs of prohibition against the trust on the grounds that the owners were not informed of the basis on which their properties were deemed insanitary, and that the SIT had made the declarations based on extraneous factors.20 The SIT appealed against the decision which was upheld by the Court of Appeal.21 The property owners further appealed against this decision in the Privy Council who ruled in their favour.22 Due to the legal entanglements, the SIT’s work in this aspect was thus deferred until after World War II.23

Initially, the SIT had no mandate to construct public housing – the municipality served as an agent for the trust in building accommodation to rehouse people affected by improvement schemes. With a serious shortage of accommodation, however, the SIT began building houses and flats for lower-income families.24 An amendment to the Singapore Improvement Ordinance in 1930 allowed the trust, with the approval of the governor, to erect buildings “as the Board may think fit”.25 The first houses built by the SIT were at Lorong Limau in 1932. By 1940, the SIT had built 558 artisan quarters in this estate.26

SIT’s second major building scheme, said to be Singapore’s first public housing estate, was at Tiong Bahru, where 784 flats, 54 tenements and 33 shops were built between 1936 and 1941.27 The trust also constructed artisan quarters and tenements in Balestier and other congested parts of the city.28 By the time the war broke out in December 1941, the trust had built 2,049 houses and 54 shops.29

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), work at the trust came to a standstill as all its senior officers were interned as prisoners-of-war. A large number of the subordinate staff, however, worked for the Japanese administration.30

1948–1959
In the postwar years, the need for public housing became a pressing issue. The Housing Committee of 1947 recommended an immediate building programme to alleviate the housing shortage.31 The SIT was tasked to implement the programme, although the committee recommended the creation of a government housing and planning department with greater powers in the long term.32


In response to the report, the government granted the SIT a loan of $5 million for the public housing programme.33 The trust’s housing policy focused on providing homes for the lower-income groups. In 1947, it opened a housing register with a rule that only persons earning $600 or less per month would be eligible for SIT housing. Although construction costs were relatively high in the beginning, by 1953 the trust was able to develop low-cost rental housing that was affordable for the low-income group.34 Between 1947 and 1959, the SIT built 20,907 housing and shop units.35

In 1953, the trust announced plans to build its first satellite town, Queenstown, which would house 70,000 people and be self-sufficient in terms of having its own amenities such as schools, clinics, markets, shopping centres and cinemas.36 The trust encountered various problems in the development of Queenstown. There was public debate over which income groups should be eligible to purchase the new flats and a reluctance of squatters in the area to resettle in Jurong.37 In addition, some squatters of Covent Garden – a slum area located between Kim Seng and Havelock roads marked for development – who were allocated resettlement flats in Queenstown refused to move in. This delayed development of the Covent Garden site and resulted in a loss of rental income for the trust as 150 resettlement flats remained vacant.38 In 1956, the SIT marked the completion of its first neighbourhood in Queenstown with an opening ceremony at a 14-storey block of flats named Forfar House.39

In addition to being the government’s agent for public housing projects, the 1947 Housing Committee tasked the SIT to develop a master plan for Singapore.40 In 1951, the trust appointed a survey and planning team to undertake the task of producing a master plan for Singapore’s development with the help of town planning consultant George Pepler.41 The master plan was exhibited in 1956 to solicit public feedback.42 In 1958, the government approved the final report of the master plan.43

Dissolution of the trust
In June 1949, the Housing Bill was introduced in the Legislative Council to provide for a housing trust that would undertake housing and development schemes in Singapore. Later that year, a more comprehensive Development Bill covering planning, housing and improvement under a development board was submitted to the Legislative Council.44 This bill was shelved in 1951, but formed the basis of the Singapore Improvement Bill that followed, which covered improvement and slum clearance, town and country planning as well as public housing. However, none of these bills came to fruition.45 Finally, in 1958, the Planning Bill and the Housing and Development Bill were introduced in the Legislative Assembly and passed the following year.46


The SIT was dissolved on 31 January 1960. The planning divisions responsible for the master plan, replanning and development control previously under the SIT were taken over by the Planning Department under the supervision of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.47 Its public housing programme was taken over by the HDB, constituted on 1 February 1960 with the enactment of the Housing and Development Ordinance. Lim Kim San was appointed its first chairman.48

Timeline
1906:
Simpson report recommends the establishment of a sanitary board.
1916:
President of the Municipal Commission recommends the establishment of a health trust.
1918:
Housing Commission recommends the establishment of improvement commissioners.
1920:
SIT is set up as a department of the municipality.
1 Jul 1927:
Singapore Improvement Ordinance is enacted and the SIT is formally established.

1932: First SIT houses built in Lorong Limau.
1936: SIT starts work on first housing estate in Tiong Bahru.
1947: Housing Committee recommends that SIT embarks on a public housing programme and develops a master plan for the island.
1951: Master plan survey and planning team is assembled.
1956: SIT completes first neighbourhood in Queenstown; master plan is exhibited.
1958: Master plan is approved by the government.
26 Jan 1959: Planning as well as Housing and Development bills are passed in the Legislative Assembly.
31 Jan 1960:
SIT is dissolved and its functions taken over by the Planning Department led by the prime minister, and the HDB.




Author

Stephanie Ho



References
1. Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 86–87. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
2. “Singapore Sanitation Commission,” Straits Times, 16 June 1906, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 94, 102.
4. Quah Jon Siew-Tien, Administrative Reform and Developmental Administration in Singapore: A Comparative Study of the Singapore Improvement Trust and the Housing and Development Board (Florida: Florida State University, 1975), 107–8; “Sanitation of Singapore,” Straits Times, 12 June 1907, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Singapore Housing,” Straits Times, 30 August 1918, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singapore Housing”; “Housing Commission,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 22 August 1918, 116. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Municipality, Singapore, Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1920 (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1921), appendix H, 125. (microfilm NL3410)
8. Quah, Administrative Reform and Developmental Administration in Singapore, 112; J. M. Fraser, The Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1927–1947 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1948), 9 (From PublicationSG); “Ex-SIT Man Dies, 88,” Straits Times, 1 December 1961, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Municipality, Singapore, Administration Report of the Singapore Municipality for the Year 1926 (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1927), 1. (microfilm NL3413)
10. Quah, Administrative Reform and Developmental Administration in Singapore, 116–7; “Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 17 May 1927, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 1; Straits Settlements, Ordinances Enacted By the Governor of the Straits Settlements with the Advice and Consent of the Legislative Council thereof in the Year 1927 (Singapore: [s.n.], 1927), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGAS-[RFL])
12. Straits Settlements, Ordinances Enacted By the Governor of the Straits Settlements, 4.
13. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 3.
14. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 8; “Big Task of Rehousing Singapore,” Straits Times, 4 July 1958, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Straits Settlements, Ordinances Enacted By the Governor of the Straits Settlements, 1.
16. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 5–7.
17. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 4.
18. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 5–6.
19. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 10.
20. “Powers of Improvement Trust,” Straits Times, 23 January 1935, 13; “Writs of Prohibition against Improvement Trust,” Straits Times, 3 April 1935, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Improvement Trust’s Appeal,” Straits Times, 21 June 1935, 12; “Court Uphold Improvement Trust Appeal,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 2 August 1935, 6; “Improvement Trust Appeal,” Straits Times, 1 August 1935, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Court Uphold Improvement Trust Appeal.” 
23. Quah, Administrative Reform and Developmental Administration in Singapore, 132–3.
24. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 7.
25. Straits Settlements, Ordinances Enacted By the Governor of the Straits Settlements, 52.
26. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 10.
27. Teh Cheang Wan, “Public Housing in Singapore: An Overview,” in Public Housing in Singapore: A Multi-Disciplinary Study, ed. Stephen H. K. Yeh (Singapore: Housing and Development Board, 1975), 4. (Call no. RSING q363.5095957 PUB); Quah, Administrative Reform and Developmental Administration in Singapore, 136.
28. Singapore Improvement Trust, The Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1958 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1959), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095951 SIN-[RFL])
29. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1958, 2.
30. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 19.
31. Housing and Development Board, Singapore, Report of the Housing Committee, Singapore, 1947 (Singapore: [s.n.], 1948), 5. (via PublicationSG)
32. Housing and Development Board, Singapore, Report of the Housing Committee, Singapore, 1947, 9.
33. Fraser, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust, 1.
34. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1958, 9–10.
35. Housing and Development Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1960 (Singapore: Housing and Development Board, 1963), 5. (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095957 SIN-[AR])
36. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1954 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1955), 13 (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095951 SIN-[RFL]); “Queenstown: It Won’t Be Perfect at the Start,” Singapore Free Press, 2 October 1953, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Public Wins – No Trust Flats for the High-Income Men,” Straits Times, 29 January 1955, 4; “Squatters Hold Up S.I.T. Plans,” Straits Times, 21 November 1955, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Covent Garden Slum,” Straits Times, 2 August 1951, 10; “Squatters Won’t Take the New City Flats,” Straits Times, 23 August 1956, 8; “They Stay Put – So 150 Flats Stay Empty,” Straits Times, 27 September 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1954, 5.
40. Housing and Development Board, Singapore, Report of the Housing Committee, Singapore, 1947, 11–12.
41. “They Want Your Plan for the New Colony,” Straits Times, 13 July 1951, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “Colony Hails Master Plan,” Straits Times, 5 January 1956, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1959 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1959), 15. (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095951 SIN-[RFL])
44. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1949 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1950), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095951 SIN-[RFL])
45. Singapore Improvement Trust, Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1951 (Singapore: Singapore Improvement Trust, 1952), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095951 SIN-[RFL])
46. “The Housing Problem,” Straits Times, 12 September 1958, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Considered in Committee, Reported and Third Reading of the Housing and Development Bill, vol. 9 of Debates: Official Report, 26 January 1959, cols. 1819–30 (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN); Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Considered in Committee, Reported and Third Reading of the Planning Bill, vol. 9 of Debates: Official Report, 26 January 1959, cols. 1830–46. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
47. Planning Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1960/1961 (Singapore: Planning Department, 1963), 1 (Call no. RCLOS 711.4095957 SPDAR); “2 New Boards Take over from the SIT,” Straits Times, 1 February 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
48. “Banker Heads Housing, Development Board,” Straits Times, 16 February 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)



Further resources
Improving Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 5 February 1927, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Municipal Ideals,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 25 January 1916, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

National Archives (Singapore), “Straits Settlements Records – Report on the Sanitary Condition of Singapore by W. J. Simpson M. O. F. R. C. P. (Dr. J. Galloway), private records, 1907. (From National Archives of Singapore microfilm. NA1294)

Reconditioning Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 20 July 1927, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Singapore Housing,” Straits Times, 30 August 1918, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

The Improvement Trust,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 28 June 1927, 9. (From NewspaperSG)



The information in this article is valid as of 14 March 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.












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