Mention the term “public housing” to a foreigner who has not been to Singapore and notions of shared toilets, common kitchens and general drab living conditions would tend to surface in his mind. Just recently, I came across a discussion on a popular forum for expatriates. A worried expatriate who was going to move to Singapore had asked if our public housing would be like slums, as his employer had recommended a rented HDB flat to him for his accommodation in Singapore. His fellow expats were eager to reassure him that public housing in Singapore was far from what he had in mind.
Public housing in other countries is generally associated with low standards of living and even poverty. But in Singapore, flats are meant to cater to all income levels. Did you know that the United Nations recognises our HDB estates as one of the best human settlements in the world? In 2010, the HDB had been conferred the 2010 UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award. This award, currently the most prestigious human settlements award in the world, acknowledges initiatives which have made outstanding contributions such as shelter provision, leadership in post conflict reconstruction, developing and improving human settlements, and the quality of urban life.
These days, our flats are designed and adorned with amenities to emulate the living environments of private apartments and condominiums. In fact, income ceilings had to be implemented to ensure that those who could well afford private property would not deprive the lower and middle income groups of their chances to purchase HDB flats. Quality public housing is uniquely Singapore, and something we can proudly discuss with our foreign friends.
Some reasons why we love our HDB flats:
Great amenities around the estate, mostly free!
The small size of our HDB flats and relatively high cost we pay for it is something many of us bemoan. But the popular saying goes, “The sparrow may be small but it has all the vital organs.” Exercise corners, elderly fitness corners, playgrounds, jogging and cycling tracks, study areas, chess corners, basketball courts, even a mini mart, clinic or coffee shop for those who live in the more populated areas… they are virtually right below our blocks. Fancy table tennis, squash, swimming or other sports that require more specialised equipment? Community centres and sports complexes aren’t far away from most estates.
Cheaper food and shopping
Hawker centres, which are in the vicinity of HDB housing estates, are the epitome of cheap and good food. A large variety of goods, ranging from electronic products to clothes, can be found for cheaper prices in the heartlands in comparison to shopping malls and retail establishments in the city areas.
Close to nature
Overcoming the challenges of a concrete estate, Town Councils have worked hard on various projects to incorporate more greenery in the estates, improving the air quality and providing a more relaxing environment for residents. Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC has three major parks alone, which are conducive places for residents who value some peaceful time alone, engage in physical activity or simply to socialise and spend some quiet time with loved ones. Compare this to actual concrete jungles in New York City and Tokyo, where apartment buildings are elegant and classy but often built in the midst of the hustle of bustle of city life. Nature lovers can count our blessings.
In the thick of things
Your grandmother is illiterate, doesn’t watch the news and doesn’t surf the internet. Yet she is able to fill you in on the government’s new policies. Living in the HDB estates means you get many chances to interact with neighbours or pick up their conversations as you move around the estate. You would never have to be afraid of being cut off from society, or being left in the dark about major issues.
Experiencing the essence of multiculturalism
In Singapore, everybody celebrates festivals of all races, regardless of their own race! Residents of different races would exchange festive delicacies, while decorations with cultural symbolisms adorn the whole estate. With more residents renting out flats to expatriates, HDB estates have become little cultural melting pots on their own.
Granted, residents these days like to keep to themselves, but it does not always have to be like this. The Filipino maid who lives on my floor knows practically all the neighbours in my block. Every time the lift door opens, she heartily greets the neighbour who walks in and they start jabbering away like old friends. It does put me to shame as I hover awkwardly in the background because I am not on friendly terms with that neighbour, despite having met him or her a few times.
A foreign friend of mine commented, “When I smiled and said hello to my neighbours, they regarded me strangely at first, but eventually returned my greetings. Now that we’re friends, I think my neighbours are really warm and friendly people”.
Sometimes, someone has to make that first step. Why not be that someone? Cordial relations with neighbours means that many social problems can be peacefully ironed out and amicably solved, which of course, contribute to happier living in the HDB estate!
– This article first appeared in a lifestyle magazine