Beginnings of the Singapore Improvement Trust and Tiong Bahru Estate

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Flats built by the Singapore Improvement Trust dating between 1960s and 1980s. (2001-04381. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

Beginnings of the Singapore Improvement Trust and Tiong Bahru Estate
Tiong Bahru, recognised as Singapore’s first housing estate, is a gathering of the old and new. High-rise condominiums sprout in the backdrop, while low-rise Art Deco walk up flats stand illustrious. Ask a resident about life in the estate, and he might tell you how the elderly congregate for taichi at the Seng Poh Garden, known for its Dancing Girl sculpture crafted by famed Merlion sculptor Lim Nang Seng. Ask another, and she might describe how Tiong Bahru takes on a different character as people from all walks of life visit for an all-day breakfast at one of its many artisanal coffee joints.

One of Singapore’s most sought-after residential addresses, it is not widely known that Tiong Bahru bears a historical past as a former burial ground dotted by graves. Before the days of public housing, Tiong Bahru was filled with low hills, mangrove swamps and cemeteries. This part of Tiong Bahru is preserved in its name – a combination of Hokkien and Malay, meaning ‘New Cemetery’. 
Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong BahruSingapore Improvement Trust flats in the Tiong Bahru estate. (c. 1953. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

The Redevelopment of Kampong Tiong Bahru
Describing the area during its redevelopment by the Singapore Improvement Trust, The Straits Times of 26 June 1930 observed:

“…the land was practically all evil-smelling swamp, several feet below sea-level, with a dirty-looking creek running through it to the Singapore River. There were three fairly large hills on the far side from the main roads, and on these were numerous hovels, filthy and insanitary, occupied by squatters of the pig-breeding and coolie types.”

As it happened, the improvement scheme for Kampong Tiong Bahru fell on the lap of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Established in 1920 following recommendations of a housing commission set up to review living conditions of the overcrowded central area of Singapore, SIT grew out of an idea first mooted more than a decade earlier in an editorial of The Singapore Free Press. SIT became an independent legal entity when the Singapore Improvement Ordinance was passed in 1927.

Did you Know?
SIT’s first housing project was a semi-detached villa estate known as the Lavender Street Estate that was completed in 1928. Two years later, it built two large 250-room blocks of tenements in Kreta Ayer.

Groundwork for SIT’s first major housing project began when 70 acres of land was acquired for $260,000 in Tiong Bahru under the Tiong Bahru Improvement Scheme, with the aim of turning the insanitary area into shophouse lots that would relieve congestion in Chinatown. Huts and squatters were cleared while the Hokkien Huay Kuan;exhumed and moved the graves to other cemeteries such as Bukit Brown. Earth from the levelled hills was used to fill in the swampland. Land preparation work was completed by 1931.

The SIT began work on the development of the housing estate in 1935, embarking on construction in 1936. The first block was completed by December that same year, and it still stands today at the junction of Tiong Bahru Road and Tiong Poh Road.

When it was first built, the block consisted of four shops and 28 flat units rented out at $25 a month, then a ‘high-price’ for those seeking resettlement. In the end, European families and Chinese “of the clerical class” moved in.

In 1940, the largest apartment, Block 78 Moh Guan Terrace, was completed. This would become one of the most iconic blocks of the estate, with a purpose-built air raid shelter, the first of its time to be included in a public housing project. 78 Moh Guan Terrace also carries three different postal addresses, due to its unique U-shaped design.

By 1941, the SIT had completed 784 flats, 54 tenements and 33 shops, and housed 6,000 people. Building construction took a hiatus during the Japanese Occupation years – a period when more people moved in illegally. After the war, the SIT constructed another 2,000 units. By the late 1950s, the population at Tiong Bahru was estimated at close to 20,000 residents.
Tiong Bahru Singapore Improvement Trust FlatsSingapore Improvement Trust flats in the Tiong Bahru estate. (c. 1953. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

The Tiong Bahru estate layout featured open spaces and emphasized small neighbourhoods. The pre-war flats circled a communal zone of amenities including a market, place of worship and coffeeshops while the post-war flats were built around an open concept. The flats were assorted three to five-room units and were arranged in two to five-storey walk-up apartments. In 2003, the Urban Redevelopment Authority accorded conservation status to 20 blocks of flats.

SIT flats were designed with the tropical weather in mind. Architects were conscious of the warm temperatures and high humidity and their designs reflected a coping mechanism. Flats frequently featured high ceilings, large windows and open, cantilevered balconies.

Many flats were also known as ‘puay kee chu’ or ‘aeroplane houses’ in Hokkien, as their design resembled that of the control tower at Kallang Airport. The blocks featured a modified form of the Streamline Moderne style, a late development of the Art Deco movement. The facades bore distinctive curved forms, popular of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The buildings were also designed to look like automobiles, ocean liners and aeroplanes and topped with sweeping, streamlined and aerodynamic lines.
Singapore Improvement Trust flats dating to 1950sSingapore Improvement Trust flats at Upper Pickering Street. (c. 1950s. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

Singapore Improvement Trust Flats in Upper Pickering StreetSingapore Improvement Trust flats dating to the 1950s. (Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

The SIT was dissolved in 1959 and replaced by the Housing and Development Board as the national housing authority in February 1960. The SIT’s legacy still lives on in the odd 138 blocks still standing in Singapore in places like Bukit Merah, Queenstown and Tiong Bahru – but it is the Tiong Bahru estate that reminds us of the beginnings of the public housing journey in Singapore.
Singapore Improvement Trust 1957Singapore Improvement Trust 1957. (c. 1958. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

Singapore Improvement Trust 1927 - 1947Singapore Improvement Trust 1927-1947. (c. 1948. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)

Street Sign of Tiong Bahru RoadAn early street sign of Tiong Bahru Road dating to the early-mid 20th century. (Image from National Museum of Singapore.)