singapore diaries (iii)

Back already, in Singapore, a place that now feels so familiar I barely notice its idiosyncracies. Such as this: more than eighty per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, owned by the government’s Housing Development Board, like these.

Dizzyingly tall high-rises painted in tropical shades that catch the sun, designed with walkability, shade, diversity and greenery in mind. The policy was introduced in the 1960s as the newly independent city-state searched for a drastic solution to its burgeoning economy and growing population. Workers were moved from cramped shophouses and crumbling shacks to their new homes in the sky. Today the flats are so in demand a three to four year waiting period applies.

It’s a policy idea so drastic – and yet so simple – that it’s unthinkable of it happening at home. And would we want it to? Solve the housing crisis, commit to high-rise living and end accommodation inequality, but lose the green belt, succumb to uniformity and bid farewell to an individual’s right to choose one’s home (if one can afford it)? Imagine if, tomorrow, Theresa May announced plans to tear down older, low-rise housing estates and build thousands of uniform tower blocks in their place? You might argue it was tried and failed, in the Brutalist post-war housing blocks that dot the skyline of London and other British cities. But these were arguably just quick-fixes, constructed in haste with little thought for liveability and longevity, to fill the ruins of blitzkrieged bombsites. Further government-built high rises are unlikely, anyway, after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

Singapore’s towers, in utter contrast, are immaculately maintained, always freshly painted, surrounded by rain trees that shade the public walkways and soften the angular edges of these concrete titans. Each estate is essentially a self-sufficient village, with its own convenience store, communal roof garden, food court, doctor’s surgery and sporting facilities. Flats are allocated so that the demographic make-up of each block mirrors the racial make-up of the city as a whole. For a nation with quasi one-party rule, it’s remarkably progressive.

But, as almost always, there are no easy answers. Many have criticised the policy for its narrow focus on the nuclear family. Unmarried adult children do not qualify for their own HDB flat until they turn thirty-five – or get married. HDB sham marriages, it’s rumoured, abound. Still, it’s hard to imagine in our age of austerity back home a government investing so much into public housing. Mostly, I approach HDB flats with an air of ambivalence, appreciating their giraffe-like height and green spaces from an outsider’s perspective, fascinated by the level of meticulous planning involved, but seeing them as a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. Something that wouldn’t work back home. Regardless, this is my favourite thing of discovering new, faraway places – the opportunity to see how others live, to weigh the alternatives, to wedge open the door to new ways of thinking and living, to contemplate for a brief moment a very different life.

(photos) on digital | Outram and Tiong Bahru | October 2017