The Housing Development Board Gallery
On Friday, June 1st, our group, plus friends and Singapore locals, Mandy and Georgie, travelled via MRT to the Housing Development Board (HDB) Hub in Toa Payoh to “discover Singapore’s public housing story”. The overall public housing story seemed to be uplifting – one promising a life aimed at health, happiness, community, and conscious green living thanks to their Home Ownership Scheme.
Upon entering the gallery we were greeted with a digital display of an HDB kitchen. Depending on the option selected from an electronic display board, actors of various ages and situations emerged in the kitchen and discussed their preference for HDB living. A young couple vocalized the flat’s affordability and their excitement over being first-time homeowners. A family of four with a baby on the way discussed their need for a bigger HDB flat to accommodate their growing family. An elderly couple conversed about downsizing, resale, and moving to a flat with greater amenities suited to their needs. The whole procession was very corny and staged but made a point – the HDB is aiming at meeting the needs and desires of all its stakeholders.
In the next zone of the gallery we encountered a vision of Singapore’s master plan which relates to creating a “heartland” environment on all scales – the individual flat, the precinct, and the town. The most interesting feature of this zone was the multi-touch interactive display on town planning. By scrolling the screen overtop of the illustrated town we were able to see what individual elements went into their comprehensive planning – access to resources such as community bonding facilities, exercise facilities, and a library.
Another zone, the fifth of six such areas, detailed the sustainability efforts of the HDB. The message expressed by the HDB is that environmental responsibility should be shared by all. Innovations such as rainwater harvesting, recycling chutes, and rooftop gardens were mentioned. In talking to Mandy, it became clear that rooftop gardens are an extremely popular and desirable feature of the new to newer flats. She told us that the older buildings did not have these innovations but the HDB was conscious of implementing them to suit modern concerns and needs.
The final zone, zone six, may have been my least favorite part of the gallery. While the rest of the zones detailed efforts taken to house a nation, the last zone dealt with the future of housing development in a very unrealistic way. The visual provided looked more like a hamster theme-park with tubes connecting buildings shaped like distorted, vertical pods than a livable, workable, enjoyable community that valued its reputation as a garden city. The zone also served as an area for the HDB to pat itself on the back and list, chronologically across a wall, awards received. The wall of bragging was a bit much – though understandably deserves attention.
Beyond the gallery itself, we were able to experience what a Singaporean might when deciding on a home. On a floor above the gallery, models of HDB flats were on display and natives were milling about examining the buildings and their amenities. Next to the models was a seating area facing large TV screens that displayed which flats were taken and which were still available. Mandy and Georgie pointed out the ethnic quotas per building – a mandatory stipulation. Given the large Chinese population in Singapore their quota is the highest. The Malays are the second highest.
Dr. Glass asked Mandy and Georgie what a person of two races would do then. Mandy replied that she was Chinese and Malay but “two or more races” is not an option. She continued by stating she would select her ethnicity as Chinese not only because of the higher quotas, but because the Malay people are depicted as lazy and unmotivated. She said, “It’s not racism, it’s just a hierarchy”.
The HDB gallery presented me with two realizations. First, the pressure to marry is exaggerated by the rules of the HDB. Only two citizens, or one citizen and one permanent resident, can apply for a flat. The equivalent of a marriage license must be presented at some point during the application process. This encourages young people looking to live on their own to resort to marriage as a way of obtaining housing. Next, I was not expecting a “hierarchy” among the south-east Asian ethnicities. Also, the fact that at least Mandy does not see a hierarchy of ethnicities as a form of racism is a bit frightening. I wonder if this is a common perception, especially among young people.
Something to think about! Maybe a research topic for future 1500 students!