Chris I just arrived at a 12-storey building on the West side of Singapore. It’s a concrete box painted eggshell white, with a simple brown stripe along the fourth story and a huge number on the side.
There is a small playground out front, and mature trees and grassy open spaces all around. But to be quite honest, it looks almost exactly like the half-dozen other high-rise buildings around it.
I’m here to visit one of my students. I’m not worried about him or anything, I just want to see where he lives. Ryan, a second year computer engineering major, has invited me to meet his family and see his home in Singapore’s famously high-quality public housing.
I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast that explores the meaning of home in Singapore through the stories and lives of my students.
Most academic studies of home begin with the residence. For most people it is the most fundamental and important space of everyday life. It’s a space of rest and recovery from work or school, a space of interaction with family and friends, and the largest economic investment one will ever make. In other words, the residence is the most basic social and economic building block of neighborhoods, cities, and nations.
This episode explores the most common form of residence in Singapore, the HDB. HDB is the acronym for the housing development board, the arm of the government responsible for almost every aspect of the planning, design, construction, sale, and maintenance of these homes, and as I’ve learned in eight years living in Singapore, any attempt to understand home in this country must begin with understanding this unique form of public housing.
In many countries, “public housing” is associated with images of poverty and neglect. But in Singapore, public housing lacks those negative connotations.
That’s because around 80% of the population lives in public housing, and most of it is owner-occupied, not rented. It is public because the government is the planner, developer and real-estate agent.
Plus these high-rise complexes clustered all across this island nation are well-built and well-maintained, with amenities like playgrounds, outdoor exercise facilities, and covered walkways that link residents to nearby community centers, shopping centers, food courts, schools, and the country’s clean and efficient public transportation network.
Since Singapore is so small and private housing so expensive, public housing is really the only option for most people. But the success of the program and the quality of the homes has long been a point of pride for the government and most Singapore residents.
This pride often extends to my students, who recognize the importance of HDB in creating the landscape of contemporary Singapore. But that pride is often complicated by anxiety over eligibility requirements, rules, costs, and other issues linked with HDB ownership.
Our HDB guides in this episode are Ryan, Hui Jun and Reno, who produced the following segment for class in 2017. In fact, their work helped inspire the Home on the Dot podcast by showing me the creativity, critical thinking, and story-telling ability of NUS students.
Starting with their title Happy Dream Blocks, which is a playful alternative reading of the HDB acronym, they critically analyze the public housing program and express their ambivalence, a common feeling among my students toward the program designed to benefit them all.
As they explain, these high-quality homes in ethnically-mixed neighborhoods have been one of the most visible everyday reminders of promises fulfilled by the PAP, or People’s Action Party, the single political party that has led Singapore since the country was founded half a century ago.
But the government has also used the public housing program to celebrate some cultural values at the expense of others. For instance, it has limited HDB access to certain groups, ideally married heterosexual couples with children. This has made other groups feel unwelcome in housing that is supposed to be for the entire public. This is especially the case for homosexuals and singles below the age of 35: the age at which an unmarried person can finally purchase an HDB flat.
As you might expect, such criteria weigh heavily on some students, as they look to the future and wonder whether they want to or will be able to buy into the Singaporean dream of HDB ownership.
Before I turn it over to Ryan, Huijun and Reno, I’ll point out a few important details.
First, the HDB world is full of acronyms. In this episode, for instance, an interviewee mentions a BTO. This stands for Build-to-Order and refers to a new flat. This is what newly married couples typically purchase, and it comes with the most generous government grants.
Also, it’s useful to know that Singapore consists of several ethnic groups – around 70% are Chinese, 20% Malay, and 10% Indian and Eurasian- and that the government tries to maintain a balance of these percentages in its public housing blocks through what are frequently called racial quotas.
Ok, here’s Happy Dream Blocks, produced by Ryan, Huijun and Reno, and narrated by Rick.
Rick These are sounds from a typical family living in a HDB flat, a place where 80% of Singaporeans live in and call home.
But what is the profile of such a family? What norms are attached to the definition of a Singaporean family? Let us hear what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has to say about this.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong And by family in Singapore, we mean one man and one woman marrying, having children, and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit. And if you look at the way our housing board flats are, neighbourhoods are, new towns, that’s by and large how Singaporeans live. It’s not so in other countries, particularly in the West anymore, but it is here. I acknowledge that not everybody fits into this mould. Some are single, some have more colourful lifestyles, some are gay. But a heterosexual stable family is a social norm. It’s what we teach in schools, it’s what parents want to see, what their children to see as their children grow up, to set their expectations and to develop in this direction. And I think a vast majority of Singaporeans want to keep it this way, want to keep our society like this, and so does the government.
Rick In Singapore, the definition of a family is rather rigid. One necessary condition for flat ownership includes having a proper family nucleus, specifically a heterosexual family. These conditions prevent homosexual couples as well as singles from easy access to a HDB flat purchase. Considering the sheer number of flats filled with ideal families, these alternative parties become almost invisible.
This seems to be the intention of the state, which regards the institution of the family as the cornerstone of society, requiring the foundation of married, monogamous, heterosexual, procreative couples. What then do Singaporeans think of these restrictions on the purchase of HDB flats? Let us find out.
Student Interviewer As a 31 year old single, what do you feel about the HDB policies of like purchasing a flat?
Interviewee I think it is not very advantageous for singles because by the time they are 35, if they want to apply for a HDB like a BTO, they can only apply for a 2-room studio apartment, which is really, really small. So first of all, that’s not advantageous for a single. And second of all, when you’re 35 and you apply for a BTO, you have to wait for 4 years and by the time you get your house, you’re 39 and that’s really very old already. Yeah, and I think also the grants for singles is also not as good as the grants for the married couples, but I guess that’s all part of the government’s plan of wanting people to get married so they just try to put single people at a disadvantage. But I think with the growing number of singles in society and all, really need to care for the singles a bit more than the married couples. I mean, not more than the married couples, but more, rather than just putting us at a disadvantage. “Only when you’re 35”, man, in other countries, people already have their own houses by, I don’t know, 20 plus or even earlier? But in Singapore, it’s just difficult, so I think the government can be doing more about that. With the current policies and all from the government, it does feel like I’m being put at a disadvantage and the government doesn’t really care as much for me. So yeah, I guess my sense of belonging feel a bit less compared to if I were to have my own house and if the government has good policies for singles. Then I can feel more at home, that I am treated well and equally.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Many citizens have said this, but it’s true and worth saying again. Singapore is basically a conservative society. The family is the basic building block of society. It has been so and by policy, we have reinforced this and we want to keep it so.
Rick Public housing is one of the tools used by the Singapore government, to build and reinforce a certain ideological hegemony. Through the monopoly over the provision of public housing, the state has the power to promote specific ideas of home as natural and commonsensical. However, looking beyond the scope of the family household, the government also has a hold over wider definitions of home. We now step out of the household into the community.
In the vicinity, there are many shared amenities such as common parks, shared sports facilities and neighbourhood centres. By using shared common spaces, the government tries to incorporate the community into their ideal definition of a HDB home.
Student Interviewer Do you have many friends in the neighbourhood?
Interviewee #2 Uhh I have quite a number of friends, but there are few closer ones. It’s just one of the neighbours just a few doors away. I got to know her many years ago when she was renovating her house. So the other friend, I got to know her when we were waiting for our kids to go up the school bus. So that’s how we got to know each other. Eventually, we introduced each other, so at the end, we are close friends now.
Student Interviewer Do you meet with them often?
Interviewee #2 Yes, we do meet up quite often. When I have my off days on like Tuesdays and Thursdays, at least twice a week, what we normally do is we will go to the park in the morning to walk around the park and after that and we would go for breakfast together. And then we may be doing some marketing at the nearby market. And then we do sometimes go out shopping. It can also be the neighbourhood shopping centre like JEM or Westgate, IMM. And sometimes we do go, as friends, we normally would attend courses at the community centre to learn about new things that we are not very good at. Sometimes we do things like baking, cooking, internet, learning how to cut hair, so that’s the time we get to know even more people at the community centre.
Student Interviewer Do you feel that being part of the community makes you feel more at home?
Interviewee #2 Having friends around me makes me feel more at home.
Rick Meanings are also created within the neighbourhood, not just within the household. Here we see how the imaginaries of home are important in the HDB’s representation of an ideal home through the inclusion of the community.
Man #1 Wah very full from dinner, you know.
Man #2 Oh. What you eat?
Man #1 Eat one chicken rice, then 2 egg prata some more. Want to buy my favourite drink, ice bandung. Shiok.
Man #2 Wah, so many things. Got Chinese, Indian, Malay.
Man #1 Ya sia, I wonder why so many hawker centres ah, got so many different types of food.
Man #2 Mmmm… Singapore always going on and on about the racial harmony ah.
Man #1 Maybe that’s why they impose all this racial quota when buying HDB flat. Actually quite good initiative.
Rick This community the HDB blocks are situated within is by no means generic. It is a multi-racial one. By maintaining racial quotas, it ensures that the neighbourhood would comprise of people from different races and ethnicities. The state sees this as a necessary step in preventing the formation of racial enclaves in different neighbourhoods. This helps prevent any potential racial tensions and friction. The establishment of the racial quota is seen as something that is necessary and done for the good of the nation. When neighbours of different ethnicities live together harmoniously, the ideal multi-racial community is formed. This community is then promoted as natural and commonsensical. In this way, HDB flats exemplify certain ideological beliefs and values, and in this case, Singapore as a multi-racial society.
Now, let us broaden our perspective and see how home is constructed at a national level. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew articulated the importance of giving every citizen a stake in Singapore. One such way provided by the government is through home ownership. Owning a home creates a sense of belonging and helps Singaporeans establish a stake in the Singaporean system, which may be the reason why 85% of HDB flats are purchased instead of rented. In the same vein, Agnew argues that property ownership can help increase one’s commitment towards existing social order via the upping of one’s personal stakes. The success of public housing has given the Singaporean government the legitimacy as it is a constant reminder of the state’s ability to improve living conditions. Being in the position of power, the state has the ability to influence social norms within the family, community and nation. Even for those who do not live in HDB flats, the visible stakes of HDB on Singapore’s landscape makes it very hard to avoid the notions of home that comes with it. Its prevalence makes it the perfect instrument for constructing ideological hegemony.
Chris A unique book was published in 2017, titled HDB: Homes of Singapore. This massive volume, at 680 pages and 5kg, features photographs of the interiors of over 100 HDB flats from around the country. Kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, balcony gardens – all on display for the curious reader.
Some HDBs look like they belong in a design magazine, but most are humble flats, lived in, simple, with clutter on desks, toys on the floor, and odd trinkets on the bookshelves. From the outside, all HDB flats may look alike. But in the book, the authors, Japanese designers and architects living in Singapore, set out to discover and celebrate how people make these spaces their own. In fact, the variety of flats featured in the book makes it seem as if everyone can express their unique idea of home through their HDB flat.
But as Ryan, Huijun and Reno remind us, the fact that the state limits who can purchase an HDB unit make some people feel they don’t belong.
In that case, how happy can Singapore’s Happy Dream Blocks really be?
This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Ryan, Huijun and Reno. Our sound engineers were Ryan Ang, Tang Hui Jun and Stanley Chow. Thanks to Ryan’s parents for welcoming me to their lovely home and for sharing the story of their HDB.
Finally, special thanks to the authors of HDB: Homes of Singapore, Tomohisa Miyauchi and the artist collective known as Keyakismos for daring to knock on so many strangers’ doors and for sharing stories of your HDB adventures with me and my class.
For more information about this episode and the Home on the Dot project, please visit our homepage at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot or visit our Facebook page, titled @homeonthedot