Public housing (HDB) is arguably one of the most important public goods for Singaporeans, with more than 80% of them living in HDB flats. Typically, Singaporeans, in their 20s, would think about getting engaged with a heterosexual partner to start an application of Build-to-Order (BTO) for an HDB flat. When the application is successful, meaning a flat is available for the couple, they are given three months to file their marriage with the Registry of Marriage (ROM) so that they can complete the transaction with the Housing Development Board. It seems that there is a clear pathway for every Singaporean: get engaged, apply for BTO, get married, and get an HDB flat. This pathway is institutionalized through various social policies, such as the HDB Fiancé/Fiancée Scheme. In short, the requirement of marriage for a Singaporean to get an HDB flat couples up marriage and housing.
This marriage-housing combination has received various criticisms. For example, some people argue that the state should not encourage marriage through public policies because marriage and the establishment of families are citizens’ personal decisions. Others contend that the requirement of marriage for public housing normalizes heteronormative marriage as the only family type, and excludes the unmarried, single parents, divorced people, and LGBT couples from obtaining public housing. Although I agree with all of these arguments, it is not my interest here to highlight again how strong they are. Instead, I intend to show that even if we take one step back by acknowledging the state’s legitimate right to promote the formation of heterosexual families, it is still problematic for the state to incentivize the formation of families by appealing to citizens’ desire for shelter. I will introduce a new lens to think about the marriage-housing pathway by using Michael Walzer’s concept of “distributive sphere” (Walzer, 1983).
Walzer: housing and marriage as separate goods
Walzer argues that goods have different social meanings because the production, distribution, and consumption of goods are social processes that are different across societies and across time. Because goods have different social meanings, there can be no single distributive criterion by which all goods can be made available to everyone in a society. Rather, goods with distinct social meanings should be distributed in a way that is internal to their specific social meanings. For example, the social meaning of healthcare is to heal illness and restore people’s health. Consequently, most of us agree that healthcare is ought to be distributed by medical need, not by merit or free exchange. In short, Walzer believes that each good is a “distributive sphere” and has a distributive principle internal to its sphere. The distribution of one sphere of good should be autonomous from other goods’ distributive principles. Then, what will happen if a good is distributed by a criterion for another distributive sphere? In that case, one’s (dis)advantages in one sphere of good is converted to another and thus inequalities are multiplied. Think again about the example of healthcare. In the current world, money is distributed by how marketable one’s job is. If healthcare is distributed by how much money a person is able and willing to pay rather than one’s need, then one’s inequality in the marketability of her job is converted to his or her inequality in the healthcare services.
With Walzer’s argument in mind, I am suggesting that housing and marriage are two social goods with distinct social meanings and the binding of the two in Singapore is problematic. First, let’s consider if housing and marriage have distinct social meanings. Ideally, the social meaning of housing is to provide people with shelter, a roof over their head, which is a basic human need. Marriage is a legally recognized social contract between two people, a personal decision. Speaking in the context of Singapore, the meaning of housing in Singapore has largely remained as shelter, thanks to its successful public housing policies. On the other hand, the meaning of marriage has been constructed by the state as a nuclear family formed by “compatible” heterosexual partners, “expanded through controlled fertility, rendered meaningful through traditional gendered division of labor, and maintained via the young supporting the old” (Teo, 2011). Regardless of whether the social meaning of marriage in Singapore is problematic or not, it is obviously different from that of public housing. Shelter is a shielded condition that people live in. Whereas, marriage/family is a kind of arrangement of people’s social relations with their partner and children. Therefore, housing and marriage/family are essentially two kinds of needs of human beings: the shelter is a physiological need, whereas marriage/family a social one, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
However, some people are doubtful about how separate the social meanings of housing and marriage/family are. They contend that there might be some intrinsic connection between the two. For example, when a married couple have kids, they would naturally want their kids to grow up in a stable and shielded environment with a roof over their head. Therefore, marriage/family and housing are not completely separated spheres. However, having considered the presence of unmarried individuals with shelter and married couple without owned shelter, I argue that even if there might be some connection between housing and marriage/family in some cases, such connection is not intrinsic or universally true. For example, there are married couples with kids who live in vans at carpark at East Coast Park (Foo, 2013), young married couples who have to live under the roof of their parents due to their financial incapability to afford a flat (Teng, 2016), and single mothers who raise their kids in rented places (Daud, 2020). The very presence of different marital status-shelter combinations shows that the connection between marriage and housing is not intrinsic to their meanings. In other words, the existence of one of them does not automatically imply that of another. Housing and marriage/family are two separate social goods that do not and should not determine each other’s meaning and usage.
Now, if we agree that housing and marriage/family are separable social goods with distinct social meanings, we can understand why the Singaporean state’s requirement of marriage for public housing is problematic. It institutionalizes the connection between the two spheres, making shelter conditionalized on marriage. So, what is exactly wrong with coupling up housing and marriage? Walzer would claim that the binding of marriage and housing by the Singaporean state makes one’s advantages or disadvantages in the marriage system convertible to his or her advantages and disadvantages in the housing market. Specifically, people who have difficulty getting married and establishing families and those who have already established families but not married are discriminated in or even excluded from the public housing system. For example, those who are more financially stable, who prefer to get married at an early age, or simply those who are luckier to meet their life partners earlier, are privileged in the marriage market. The Fiancé/Fiancée Scheme again makes them advantaged in the public housing application. By contrast, their peers who are financially incapable of supporting a family, who prefer to settle down at a late age, or those who are not lucky enough in the dating market have to live under the roof of their parents until 35 when they are finally eligible to apply for a single-room HDB flat for themselves, not to mention the physically disabled who are even more discriminated in the marriage market. Moreover, think about people who have established family bonds but don’t have marriage certificates: LGBT couples who are precluded from legal marriage from the very beginning and never-married parents with kids who have to live in rented places. All of them are excluded from applying for BTO. Their worse position in the marriage system makes them even worse in the distribution of shelter. In other words, inequalities are multiplied. Moreover, as I have illustrated above, shelter and marriage/family are two separate social goods and needed by people for different reasons. However, the requirement of marriage for BTO makes people’s need for shelter attached to their need for marriage, whereby exclude people who don’t need marriage, who don’t do well to actualize their need for marriage and who don’t fit into the legal form of marriage from the public provision of shelter. But their need for shelter is no less valid than their “no-need” for marriage, because marriage and shelter are two separate goods.
In conclusion, recognizing marriage/family and housing as two separate social goods with distinct meanings to human beings, we find the Singapore’s requirement of marriage for public housing problematic: it converts people’s disadvantages in the marriage system to the housing market and ignores their need for shelter. In this way, Walzer’s idea of separating housing and marriage offers us a baseline that we should and can at least meet. Don’t make those who are disadvantaged in the marriage market worse off in the housing system.
Daud, Sulaiman. “Young Single Mother with 2 Sons Shares Struggles with Renting Public Flat Due to HDB Regulations,” February 13, 2020.
https://mothership.sg/2020/02/hdb-public-rental-flat-single-mother/. FOO, JIE YING. “A Van Called Home,” October 21, 2013.
https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/van-called-home.Daud, Sulaiman. “Young Single Mother with 2 Sons Shares Struggles with Renting Public Flat Due to HDB Regulations,” February 13, 2020. https://mothership.sg/2020/02/hdb-public-rental- flat-single-mother/.
Teng, Amelia. “No Flat, No Baby? Having Child While Living with Parents Has Its Benefits but…” The Straits Times, October 16, 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/having-child-while-living-with-parents-has- its-benefits-but.
Teo, You Yenn. 2011. ‘Becoming Singaporean: housing-marriage’, in Neoliberal morality in Singapore: how family policies make state and society. London: Routledge, pp. 59- 66.
Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Basic Books, pp. 3-30.