This afternoon’s trip to the Housing & Development Board (HDB) Hub was another opportunity to witness Singapore’s sprawling bureaucracy at work, and it also acted as our first — albeit surface-level — glimpse into the home life of Singaporeans.
About 85 percent of Singapore’s population lives in government housing (HDB flats) spread across the island. Clearly, with a majority of Singaporeans living in HDB flats, not all of the developments are the “projects” of the United States, with about $58,000US set as the income ceiling for HDB-eligible families. Even still, the video (read: propaganda) we were shown as an introduction to out visit illustrated the class divisions in Singaporean society. HDB housing ranges from five-room flats for those who demand “personal space” and luxury (an image of two young Singapore yuppies relaxing in front of their new flat-screen HDTV), one-room flats for “families with more modest incomes” (an image of a family - parents, siblings, grandparents - huddled around the dinner table with noodle soup). Despite this HDB-hierarchy, the goal is to create a tightly knit, integrated community with living spaces, communal spaces, and shops. The real questions is whether this goal is actually achieved, especially when it seems next to impossible for the minority ethnic groups to maintain all-important family ties of Asian Values with a system of carefully monitored racial quotas in place to ensure that races are balanced in HDB precincts (75 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 10 percent Indian).
When we started badgering our tour guides with a smattering of tough questions, it was typical Singaporean propaganda from the get-go. Of course HDB works hard to place young home-buyers near their families, regardless of the quotas. “Yeah, right,” says Dr. Barnard, our Malaysian history professor. And no, of course it’s not true that you have to be married to purchase a flat: once you’re 35 years old you can move out of your parents’ place and get your own single flat. Family values in Singapore are always encouraged.
After we exhausted ourselves of our line of questioning, we were taken on a tour of HDB’s evolution since the early 1960s. HDB presents itself as a modernizing force in the development of Singapore, bringing the citizens out of the kampung and into the future. Or if you look at it from Dr. Barnard’s perspective, HDB brought people out of tightly knit communities that may have lacked running water and placed them in modern high-rises where no one talks to her neighbors. Either way you look at it, the transition was profound and quick.
This weekend some of us will be able to experience HDB-life without the spin when we stay with Singaporeans in their homes.