How attainable is the Singapore dream? An investigation into public housing

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Singapore

Publishing organisation: Kontinentalist

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-08-30

Language: English

Authors: Writers / Peiying Loh, Zafirah Zein
Code / Siti Aishah Bte Azmansah
Design & Illustrations / Munirah Mansoor, Griselda Gabriele
Research Assistance / Bianchi Dy, Samira Hassan


Pei Ying leads Kontinentalist in achieving its overall business and editorial goals, making strategic business development plans, and managing partnerships.

Zafirah writes data-driven stories with an Asian angle, along with client projects, for Kontinentalist.

Aishah handles front-end development of stories for desktop and mobile, as well as auxiliary data viz support.

Griselda manages the company’s social media accounts and creates editorial illustrations for projects

Munirah does editorial illustrations and designs data-visualisations as well as client projects.

Gwyneth contributes to planning, research, and writing stories, as well as analysing and visualising data.

Samira leads and oversees Kontinentalist’s partnerships and outreach efforts.

Project description:

This story takes a deep dive into Singapore’s public housing programme, long touted as an essential part of the country’s success. It investigates the programme’s evolution, and how accessible or attainable public housing is to the country’s poorest. It reveals, through data, research, and interviews, that the lowest income group lives in small rental flats, which are of a significantly lower standard of living and quality compared to the rest of the country. These present unique challenges to lower-income and minority communities. It calls for policy change to improve rental housing, making it more accessible for the most vulnerable.

Impact reached:

This was one of our most popular and top stories of the year, having an extensive reach amongst our Singaporean audiences. It also saw several reshares and commentaries on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and an extensive Reddit discussion thread. It had approximately 3,500 unique reads since publication with an average read time of 5 and half minutes, and on Instagram, reached 20,500 accounts, almost 1000 likes, 530 over direct messages or reposts, and 350 people saving it as bookmarks.

Other Singapore-based publications have covered the country’s public housing policy from a data-driven angle previously, but did not focus on the lower-income groups. Housing is an issue that affects all Singaporeans, and is often hotly discussed. Our story prompted empathy and debate amongst many, as evidenced by the extensive sharing and discussion around it.

It has also pushed other organisations and publications to think about their own communicative outputs. For example, we were contacted by a few non-profits interested to engage their audiences in a similar fashion. We also inspired a partnering company, One Bite Studio in Hong Kong, to apply the same thinking to Hong Kong’s housing policies and this culminated in a separate partnership microstory on Instagram.

Within the journalism community, the story has been featured by notable publications, such as We, the Citizens, and the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

Techniques/technologies used:

The overarching concept of this story is anchored in the definition of a Singapore dream. The story starts with a lift in the clouds to allude to this, and gradually descends into darkness towards the end. It concludes with a more uplifting colour and tone to encourage further conversations, and imbue a sense of hope for change.

A major element in this piece features a “choose your own adventure” style of storytelling. Readers can pick a family and follow them on their journey of attaining a home. We used this to explain public housing eligibility and the hurdles families face in finding a home.

This story has many interactive data visualisations, which were all made with Flourish Studio. Several data visualisations were also made as SVGs, with desktop and mobile friendly versions. We also had elements scrollytelling, using both vertical and horizontal scroll. To evoke the emotional and human element of this story, we also used illustrations to convey a sense of exclusion, loneliness, and solitude.

Other frameworks used were Scrollama.js and rough-nation js.

Context about the project:

Housing in Singapore is a relatively sensitive topic despite the prevalence of the programme. In recent years, there have been other media outfits that have been at the receiving end of legal action due to incorrect statements regarding Singapore’s public housing.

Within this big umbrella of public housing, a topic of general lesser focus is on the Public Rental Scheme, and lower-income households. The general, widely accepted narrative about families that fall into these groups, is that they have either failed to help themselves, or are there temporarily. Few media pieces cover their quality of living, and none talk about it from a data-driven perspective. Hence, our story was designed to bring the focus of public housing back to the groups that need it most.

Data on public housing is not as easily available as we would like it to be. There are slices of data available, for example income and housing distributions, or flat sale prices, but no Singapore comprehensive data repository. Some of our data was also sourced from Teoalida, a freelancer who has been collating data on Singapore’s public housing programmes for years, and sells these collated datasets for a fee. When it came to data concerning flats under the Public Rental Scheme, it was even less granular.

We supplemented these gaps with personal visits to flats under the Public Rental Scheme, and several interviews with these families.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

There are two learning points in this story. The first is how to bring an emotional tenor and empathy not only into your writing, but the story design. From the background, to the illustrations, our story was designed to immerse the reader in an experience that helped them empathise with lower-income Singaporeans, their unmet aspirations, and their sense of isolation. By using examples of everyday families in relatable jobs, we also wanted to show that Singapore’s love for meritocracy has left hard working Singaporeans disadvantaged.

Secondly, our story exemplifies how data journalism can add new perspectives to unchanging narratives. Singapore’s public housing programme is something widely celebrated, with plenty of data on flat prices and so on. However, that same data could be used to elucidate areas that has been given lesser attention to, but not any less important.

Project links: