HDB flats – SG50 Icons of Singapore

Originally written for the Overseas Singaporean Unit – view the article here.

I’m an HDB girl through and through.

I’d lived in the same HDB flat since the day I was born, and my family is still in that very spot today. We were among the first few residents to move into our block, back when Tampines was still a sleepy, backwater town.

My father used to work night shifts when I was a baby. As a child, I listened with a morbid fascination to my mother’s stories about how creepy it was then, to be alone in the flat at night with just an infant and a 4-year old, darkness and silence in the neighbourhood, strange ball-bearing noises emanating from the ceiling. My younger self would close my eyes and imagine I were in my mother’s shoes – and give myself nightmares envisioning ghosts living alongside our neighbours upstairs.

As Tampines started to develop into a regional centre, I began to get HDB envy. New clusters of flats sprang up all over the town – each with a different design, each more attractive than the last, and every one of them newer and nicer than that which I lived in. Those new blocks looked so good, that one of them even became the ‘face’ of Channel 8’s popular series “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (敢敢做个开心人) – I was immensely jealous.

The Tampines blocks that became the ‘posterflat’ for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (敢敢做个开心人).

At university, as part of my Geography degree I learnt more about the ideas behind Singapore’s public housing policy – HDB as the solution to a housing crisis, as redistribution of wealth, as a social tool for greater integration. This knowledge came in handy when addressing the questions that foreign friends inevitably have when they hear the words “public housing”, which conjures in their minds images of decrepit, grim, grey and brown high-rise blocks of cramped flats occupied by only the poorest in society.

Having lived in an HDB flat for more than 20 years, when I moved to Japan, I was delighted that my new dwellings resembled HDB blocks on the outside. They were in red and white too – this double reminder of home allowed me to pretend for a moment that I was back in Singapore, whenever I approached the apartment complex from afar.

The apartments where I lived for two years in Osaka, Japan.

Here in Belfast, there are no such reminders of HDB or of Singapore. However, years of living in a 4-room flat has its own way of leaving its mark on you – on one occasion where I had to navigate a two-storied dwelling, I missed a step and fell down the stairs. It was embarrassing to explain to others how I’d hurt myself, and the nasty ankle injury took more than half a year to heal completely.

So there you go – no multi-storied houses for me. Just a regular flat for this HDB girl please.


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