Learning from Singapore and Bangladesh

HERBERT H. WERLIN

January 29, 1991|By HERBERT H. WERLIN

If you had visited the island of Singapore in 1959, you wouldhave found one of the world's worst housing situations. Nearly three-fourths of the population of about 1.5 million were packed into the central area of the city, with ten or more families often living above the traditional low-rise shops. At the same time, between 250,000 and 300,000 people lived on the city's outskirts in squatter settlements, usually without sanitation and other requirements.

Go now! You will find more than 85 percent of the population in government-financed apartments, most of which are owner-occupied. These apartments typically have three or four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a storeroom.

And, by all accounts, people are very happy with them. While the older high-rise apartment buildings were architecturally uninteresting, many of the newer ones are innovative and exciting, mostly 10 to 13 floors in height, surrounded by parks, gardens and playgrounds, with places for shopping and services on the ground floors.

The buildings are clustered into some 16 estates or towns averaging about 200,000 residents, in 25,000 to 50,000 dwelling units. Each estate contains markets, schools, libraries, recreation centers and small-scale businesses and factories. They are linked by a new rapid-transit system and expressways to the airport, the industrial areas and the central business district.

How relevant is Singapore's housing program to the U.S.? After all, Singapore is a small city-state with fewer than 3 million people within 226 square miles. It is an occasionally heavy-handed one-party system. Moreover, Singapore's housing program is expensive, with subsidies absorbing about a third of the government's budget. At a time of American budgetary constraint, it may be unrealistic to expect any level of government to spend this sort of money on public housing, which, in any case, has never been very popular here.

Yet, an older generation of Americans, with the ''can do'' spirit of such great urban planners as New York's Robert Moses or Maryland's James W. Rouse, would be enthusiastic about Singapore's achievement. Its success derives not simply from financial resources, but also from the sort of good public administration that any country can duplicate: selection of qualified officials, delegation of responsibility, two-way communication and flexible implementation.

With effective administration and national commitment, we can borrow ideas from other countries, despite cultural and political differences. Here are some examples:

* In West Germany, nearly 60 percent of young people enter apprenticeship programs available in about 450 job categories. The youth receives a training allowance during a period of work combined with vocational study. At the end of the traineeship, usually three years, the youth may take a national examination to become a journeyman. Following additional training, a skilled worker can take another exam to become a ''master'' craftsman, eligible for loans to go into business. The programs reduce the unemployment and low-wage post-school jobs that Americans frequently encounter.

* In Japan every neighborhood has a ''koban'' or police office (with a place for sleeping and meals), which serves as a center for information, assistance and control. Policemen visit each family twice a year, usually for friendly advice and assistance, but sometimes to give reprimand or warning. They also coordinate the work of neighborhood organizations consisting largely of housewives (organized into more than 50 national women's associations) who patrol the streets.

* In Britain, health workers visit the family of every newborn child. Aided by computers to identify special problems, there are follow-up visits, immunization services and checkups, and clinic treatment by a family physician may be arranged.

* Since 1981, the government of the Netherlands has assisted cities to counteract economic difficulties. It uses a series of indicators, tackling bottlenecks that inhibit urban economic development. Particular attention is paid to firms suffering temporary loss of income, relocation and renovation costs, and problems in obtaining commercial premises.

* Bangladesh's Grameen Bank helps low-income women develop small businesses. It uses a group loan technique. To get a loan, one must join a group, which is responsible for paying back the loan. Small loans are given with a short payback period to groups that have generated an operating fund from savings, including a small percentage to coverage emergency defaults. This approach could facilitate the entry into American urban business of blacks and Hispanics who remain too dependent upon white and Asian employers.

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