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Monday, Mar. 14, 2005 - 8:17 p.m.

The long common corridors of older HDB flats were where children played every afternoon, in the forgotten deprivations of those early days. There was little else to amuse them, this generation who were either born into concrete boxes eleven stories in the air, or were relocated from the horizontal expanse of the kampungs. The axis of their travels became vertical, and no longer horizontal; catching was now played between the different floors, with the sound of their accelerating footsteps echoing off the corridor walls. From inside their flats, residents (usually grandmothers) often saw running figures blur past the constrained visual field of the door-frame; sometimes it was a child's hand slowly reaching towards a potted plant in the corridor - the thievery of unripe limes. The features of public housing meant that children could hide the slippers of neighbours, and peek at them through the six rectangular panes of window glass. But the architects of these HDB blocks made a mistake, by inserting regular slits into the corridor walls on the parapet side. Children spent entire afternoons looking through these slits, waiting for people to pass by eleven stories below. When a target appeared, everyone chose his own slit and pants were quickly pulled down. The fear of urine from above is something that carries over to the present; the urine has been falling for over thirty years, and to this day people still open their umbrellas as a precaution against children.

The vertical years of HDB life inculcated in the psyches of its residents, the idea of falling, which was never strong when they lived in the kampungs or shophouses. They discovered the propensity of things to fall, and walked down the eleven stories many times to retrieve a piece of underwear that had slid off the bamboo pole. Other things fell also, like curry thrown out from a kitchen window upstairs, or a human body that had hurled itself out into the eleven-storey void. Were there suicides before there were HDB flats? The HDB rightly prides itself for solving Singapore's housing problem by introducing one of the highest human population densities in the world. But it is not just the density of human bodies that is high, but also the densities of walls and doors. Never has so much separation been introduced into so small a space. It is yet unclear, if it is Singapore, New York, or Japan, that has the highest isolation per metre square in the world. Someone in some HDB flat, must have at one time been reading Focault, who articulated how the physical environs directly impact the form of the human psyche. So the HDB changed not only the pattern of our lives but the shape of our minds as well, and we will only know in a hundred years from now, what kind of creatures we have become.


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