COMMENT: You can’t ‘gotong royong’ around railings in the void deck

Tanjong Pagar street scene. (Yahoo photo)

What’s up with the railings in the void deck? According to the Tanjong Pagar Town Council, they’re not just there to be an eyesore and a damned nuisance; they’re actually there because complaints were made about football games being played in the space.

Photos of the now sterile void deck circulating on social media have prompted comments about bureaucracy, regulation and over-policing of public space. But none of this is new. Despite the trendiness of nostalgia and regular references to “gotong royong” and the “kampung spirit”, our lived environments have been slowly growing more hostile to communal living and truly public spaces.

When I was a kid in the 90s many HDB void decks featured circular blue-and-white tiled tables, with an accompanying semi-circular seat for whoever fancied a game of Chinese checkers – remember those? Sometime in the mid-2000s I came back to Singapore from New Zealand to find the whole structure had been replaced by blue plastic tables with four single chairs. Replacing the curved seats with single chairs made it impossible for anyone – often elderly uncles or migrant workers – from sneaking naps in the space. The chairs are also uncomfortable enough to discourage any ‘loitering’; who wants to spend much time sitting in those seats?

Anyone remember the old orange bus-stops, with their wide seats? By now, they’ve almost all been replaced by the new grey bus-stops, with their strangely sloping seats. You can only lean awkwardly against the higher ones; you sure can’t sit there for long, or try to sleep there. As observed elsewhere in the world, those seats are “bum-proof”.

There is a bridge stretching over a canal in my parents’ HDB estate. Presumably due to complaints of cyclists riding their bikes over the bridge, the town council has seen fit to install railings on either side to discourage the use of bicycles. What no one seems to have considered is that the railings are impossible to navigate for people in wheelchairs.

These ‘innovations’ are not unique to Singapore; they can be found all over the world. There’s even a name for it: ‘defensive urban architecture’. Public spaces are designed in ways to promote certain approved behaviours, while excluding people who would use the area for activities that society would supposedly frown upon.

Such actions inherently give privilege to one group over another. As Selena Savic, co-editor of Unpleasant Design, told the Guardian: “Those impacted are usually homeless people, teenagers, the poor, those who are marginalised or don’t have good social representation, or who aren’t organised as an interest group.”

We see this in Singapore, too. The town council would erect ugly railings in response to complaints from some quarters about football games, but would anyone listen to the kids – or, as the Straits Times report might call them, “miscreants” – or homeless for whom void decks might be crucial places of community and shelter?

We talk a lot about the “kampung spirit” in Singapore these days. It’s little more than a buzzword now, referencing a commodified concept from the “good ol’ days”. It conjures up images of little boys in loose white singlets playing barefoot in the sand, while their samfu-clad mothers gossip and chatter. For multiracial nation-building purposes, add in a makcik and an Indian kacang puteh man, too.

In the perpetuation of such a marketable ideal we tend to erase the more grounded aspects of what communal living really entails; the constant negotiation for space, the unavoidable arguments, the inevitability of disagreement that everyone nonetheless accepts as part of life. We forget that communities require give-and-take that works both ways; instead, what we have now is one group that is made to give, while another takes.

Sure, it’s kind of annoying to have a football flying around sometimes. Smudge marks on white walls can also be a little irritating. And it isn’t the most pleasant experience to see someone who is homeless or in need sleeping on benches. But there are ways of dealing with issues – for example, examining why people are homeless and needing to seek shelter in void decks – that don’t involve making our lived environments more and more sterile.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger and journalist. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.