Bad idea to lease void decks to MPs

Good, now I’ve got your attention. But this post is not about politics, it’s about urban planning and social spaces.

Having won Aljunied GRC, the Workers’ Party faced a problem of where they would conduct their MP’s clinics  — the kind of thing that in Singapore-speak we call “Meet-the-people sessions” — where at regular intervals, the member of parliament (MP) for an area would make himself available to listen to and assist his constituents. The party had no physical premises in the group representation constituency (GRC). So, last week, they held the first of their weekly clinics at void decks.

“Void decks” — another typically Singaporean term. These are the unwalled ground floors beneath blocks of flats.

It was not only the Workers’ Party that faced this problem. The People’s Action Party (PAP) did too, in Potong Pasir single-member constituency which it had retaken from the Singapore People’s Party in the 7 May 2011 general election. Normally, PAP MPs hold their clinics in offices built adjacent to kindergartens that the PAP Community Foundation had put up (mostly by enclosing void decks), but since there wasn’t any PAP Community Foundation kindergarten in Potong Pasir, Seetoh Yih Pin, the new PAP MP in Potong Pasir too had to hold his clinic at a void deck.

Given Singapore’s warm, humid climate, doing so is far from ideal for both the MP and constituents.  Lighting in void decks is also insufficient at night.

Very quickly, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), the landlord for void decks announced that they would be prepared to lease space to MPs.

In a reversal of a 20-year policy, the Government yesterday announced that all elected MPs will be allowed to rent HDB void decks and build offices there for their Meet-the-People sessions (MPS).

The Ministry of National Development (MND) said it is asking the Housing Board to let Members of Parliament rent ‘an appropriate amount of the void deck space to set up an MP’s office’ for the purpose of holding these sessions.

Its statement said: ‘The rental will be at a concessionary rate, similar to that levied for non-profit, social communal uses. This change takes immediate effect.’

The HDB’s move ends a policy introduced in 1991 that disallowed political parties from renting void deck space. The opposition had criticised it as giving unfair advantage to the People’s Action Party (PAP).

— Straits Times, 28 May 2011, All MPs can now rent void deck space, by Kor Kian Beng

The same news story also gave a little background, which I will archive here:

. . . . since 1991 – the year the HDB announced that political parties and trade associations would not be allocated void deck spaces.

These spaces, it had said, would be leased to ‘approved’ grassroots organisations and education foundations at subsidised rates, but at market rates to town councils and private childcare centres.

At that time, the HDB said it made the change after a policy review found demand for such premises was growing. Those affected had to move out by September 1992.

The change had come three months after the August 1991 General Election, which saw four opposition MPs being elected, including Mr Low and Mr Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir.

The opposition MPs had protested against the change, saying it put them at a disadvantage because PAP MPs could use PCF kindergartens at void decks for their MPS.

The PAP MPs fired back and challenged the opposition to set up its own kindergartens.

— ibid.

* * * * *

I think this is a bad move by the HDB. Not only should they NOT lease out more space, they should tell all political groups to vacate and demolish the offices they have built. We can leave the kindergartens alone, but the political offices next to them should be removed. While we’re at it, we should also evict all Residents’ Committees from the committee rooms and dreaded karaoke rooms they have built in void decks — how many residents want to live above a karaoke centre?

We seem to have forgotten that void decks serve important environmental and social purposes.

In the early days, HDB architects and planners realised that given our climate, it is important to ensure good air-circulation. That was why HDB blocks were commonly designed with void decks. The upper diagram on the right illustrates the airflow that should result.

Over the years, the HDB has leased out more and more portions of the void decks. A fairly common example would be as illustrated in the next diagram where a carpark is surrounded by three blocks. At first, one block had shops on the ground floor while the other two had void decks.  Over time, both these other blocks had their ground floors enclosed, one to the PAP for its kindergarten and party office, the other to a childcare and tuition centre.

The carpark in the middle thus became a deep well, enclosed by three blocks of flats. The arrangement trapped the heat from the sun-baked bitumen and hot exhaust from cars  and airconditioners.

There was a noticeable difference in temperature when I got out of the car park to the other side of one block of flats where there were trees.

Void decks serve social purposes too. They are where neighbours can gather and children can play, gradually building community. Recently, there was a letter to the press from a retiree complaining that the HDB had leased out the void deck where he and his friends had spent many a pleasant afternoon over the last decade. He was the rare one who spoke up. Plenty of children have been deprived of a space to ride their tricycles, kick a ball around or play hop-scotch, shaded from the equatorial sun.

The trouble is we don’t know how to put a monetary value on the environment, both climatic and social. Bureaucrats in the HDB merely see wasted space in void decks. Leasing them out is the thoughtless result.

* * * * *

So where should MP’s clinics be? In the neighbourhood centres, I say. The HDB should put aside two adjacent shophouses in each constituency for the local MP’s use at a concessionary rental rate. After all, for years, the HDB has been facing a problem of low demand for these shop units.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) is pumping more resources to make neighbourhood shopping areas more attractive.

HDB is implementing a S$6 million pilot scheme in 14 areas at various estates.

It is also spending S$12.5 million to assist shopkeepers by addressing the problem of oversupply of shops, as well as helping those who are losing money to retire or restructure their business. [emphasis added by Yawning Bread]

— Channel NewsAsia, 14 Nov 2007, HDB sets aside S$6m to revitalise neighbourhood shopping areas, by Wong Mun Wai. Link.

The problem of oversupply was so bad, the HDB “cleared” some shops, as can be seen in this speech by Grace Fu in 2007:

10 Meanwhile, HDB will continue with the Restructuring Programme for Shops (RPS), to assist HDB shop tenants located in areas where there is an over-supply of shops and where business is poor, to exit the business. The aim is to reduce supply of shops judiciously so that the remaining shops will become more viable.

11 Since the RPS was announced in March 2005, HDB has offered the programme to a total of 455 shops in 44 blocks. Twenty blocks comprising 219 shops or 48% of the shops will be cleared.

— Parliamentary speech by Grace Fu, Minister of State for National Development, 3 March 2007. Link.

On the one hand, we’re buying back shops from struggling mom-and-pop businesses while throwing money (again) at “revitalising” neighbourhood centres; on the other hand, we’re leasing out void decks to MPs, tuition centres, Residents’ Committees and so forth, who then spend money building new walls and adding new plumbing, and depriving residents, young and old, of a pleasant space.

Why is it that in all these years, nobody has thought of the obvious? Why do we have such a compartmentalised brain?

27 Responses to “Bad idea to lease void decks to MPs”


  1. 1 harishpillay 30 May 2011 at 15:11

    Spot on, Alex.

    Political expediency is why they reversed the brain dead policy only to forget to consider the obvious.

  2. 2 Lanslord 30 May 2011 at 16:50

    I have to point out that it is ‘illegal’ to ‘kick a ball, ride their tricycles’ in HDB void decks. surprise. There is always a sign in void decks that shows 4 things not allowed to be done; cycle, ball kicking, littering and one that slipped my mind.

  3. 4 What Groupthink? It's No Think. 30 May 2011 at 17:46

    “Why is it that in all these years, nobody has thought of the obvious? Why do we have such a compartmentalised brain?”

    Agree with harishpillay.

    When you try to be too clever and politicize everything to your political party’s advantage, eventually the civil service no longer knows how to operate efficiently anymore.

    The reason you, Alex, can see the obvious is because you (and I say this respectfully) are not mainstream.

    If Singapore wants to see high productivity, we need this type of out-of-the-box thinking. Re-engineer and reform everything from a blank piece of paper as a starting point.

    Small adjustments (but only cheaper, better and faster) will not cut it anymore. Which is why PAP cannot lead Singapore into the next century.

    The endless parade of army generals can only improve micro efficiency.

  4. 5 tk 30 May 2011 at 18:29

    another example of the ‘compartmentalised thinking’ is that of the marina bay catchment / water treatment process.

    ‘on the one hand’, the huge engineering effort of the marina bay catchment is successfully storing rainwater runoff from streets and parks via the canals, lowering the saltwater content of the bay with every storm, as well as mitigating flooding in “upcanal” areas. the water is then treated by pumping it 20 kms up to the new ‘natural’ floating wetland reservoirs.

    ‘on the other hand’, the government is about to get its paws on a potentially massive new natural catchment / water filter / flood mitigator that drains directly to marina bay – the KTM railway land. everything i’ve heard to date indicates that instead of keeping the land as a water catchment / natural treatment filter, they’re going to develop the hell out of it.

    sure they’ll still be able to collect water runoff, but how much more treatment will that oily polluted water need once it hits marina bay? not to mention the loss of yet another one of the few remaining unspoiled natural areas for singaporeans to just breathe and play. oh and also not to mention the loss of land values along the corridor once it gets overrun with thousands of new (and unnecessary) flats and malls. oh and also not to mention that it could finally unite the entire southern western and northern park (dis)connectors as a giant ‘green corridor connector’. oh and that it would compete with New York’s Highline as one of the most unique parks in the middle of a ‘world class’ city.

    if anyone’s interested in finding out more, go to
    http://www.thegreencorridor.org/

  5. 6 Caculon 30 May 2011 at 18:56

    Why are those kindergarden build within the void decks, aren’t those specifically to serve locale?

    C’mon even if it is true that the void deck were an intended design feature, to better regulate thermal mass of a large chunk of concrete, it is a good convenience use of limited space.

    I suspect HDB flat buyer hated those ground apartments, and the void deck were intended for pedestrian.

    Also new HDB tends to be point blocks, mixed 4rm and 5rm apartments, only older estate has those blocks with long corridor.

    If purpose build community facility e.g. CC, could be used, it has been done I believe.

  6. 7 ape 30 May 2011 at 20:53

    And I wonder why is it not possible to use part of town council office, Community Centres and even RC Centres to hold MPS

  7. 8 shornlock 30 May 2011 at 21:50

    Yargh! Alex, do send this to Mr Khaw before he is completely overwhelmed by clearing the previous incumbent’s tray. Void decks are good, and standing on a well=positioned ‘uphill’ one, you can feel the air coming up and swirling past you. One thing you should also mention: multi-storey carparks need large airwells for convection cooling too. Otherwise, they too will reduce airflow.

  8. 9 Jake 30 May 2011 at 21:56

    Good idea. However, the newer towns don’t have many traditional shop house units to do this – eg. Seng Kang, Punggol, Pasir Ris, etc. The small shop units in these places are usually clustered in concentrated centers of “civilization” (with most other areas zoned for ulu-ness and void-deck RC-KTVs). Shouldn’t be a problem to implement in other parts of S’pore though.

  9. 10 cy 30 May 2011 at 22:58

    Besides filling up void decks(which are not void anymore), flats are being built closer together. This also raises temperature as air flow is disrupted.There is also an issue of privacy, i can see what the flat owners of neighbouring block of flats are doing clearly,so can they see me.

    There is also a lack of green space next to the flats to lower temperature and allow community bonding.

  10. 11 Kameson Lee 30 May 2011 at 23:15

    Alex’s proposal assumes one designated place for MPs, be they from the alternative parties or the ruling party, to meet their constituents. It is such a simple and reasonable proposal but the political illiteracy which has blinded us to reasonable behaviour is sad if not sickening. The idea of leasing a place by a govt department to elected officials is downright unjust and a disregard for the electorate who not only finance the govt department but also voted in their elected representatives.

    My goodness, do we need to pay ministers millions of dollars to figure out the basics of representative democracy????????????

  11. 12 r 31 May 2011 at 00:10

    i beg to differ on this point. as an architect i feel that empty void decks have always been one of the worst aspects of the HDB typology. public spaces, like any other form of necessity, should be provided in appropriate amount in order to be appreciated. the empty void decks typically found throughout HDB estates have created a gross over supply of empty, unprogrammed and undesigned public spaces, which left as it is, is largely unusable to people except during the usual occasions of malay weddings and chinese funerals. at best, such void decks provide flexibility for such occasional usage and allow for more freedom of movement and more cross ventilation at ground level (then again how many ppl other than retirees or the homeless would require totally free cross ventilation throughout all void decks?) at worst, empty void decks lack social surveillance and become breeding ground for crime. the lack of programmatic varieties other than tables and benches also does not encourage people to gather.

    rather than advocating to kick out all the stuff that is slowly taking over the void decks in singapore, i would rather we push for a fine balance of free void decks and occupied spaces that would allow for maximization of built up areas, better social life, as well as environmental factors like cross ventilation.

  12. 13 wikigam 31 May 2011 at 02:41

    ” Green Party” is still a new idea in singapore political because no ” MARKET”

  13. 14 The 31 May 2011 at 09:24

    A refreshing way of looking at things. Back to basic thinking is not that basic after all. And common sense isn’t so common. This void deck issue really shows up the void between the ears in our incumbent politicians and their minions.

  14. 15 The 31 May 2011 at 09:29

    /// r 31 May 2011 at 00:10
    the empty void decks typically found throughout HDB estates have created a gross over supply of empty, unprogrammed and undesigned public spaces, which left as it is, is largely unusable to people except during the usual occasions of malay weddings and chinese funerals. ///

    r – spoken like a true private-sector architect. Must every thing be measure in dollars and sense, and per square foot? GFA is not an issue with HDB flats. Sure, for private properties, architects are always under developers’ instruction to squeeze out every square inch of saleable floor space. But please – let’s have some space to breathe and hang around.

  15. 16 AllyL 31 May 2011 at 11:27

    “In the early days, HDB architects and planners realised that given our climate, it is important to ensure good air-circulation. That was why HDB blocks were commonly designed with void decks. The upper diagram on the right illustrates the airflow that should result.”

    I used to spend June holidays at my granny’s place which was one of the earliest flats built in the 60’s in McPherson. Her unit was on the ground floor; there was no void decks in the HDB flats of yesteryear. So when one had to walk from end of the block to the other, one could not use a void deck and so was faced with a very high chance of being hit by a litterbug. So I’m speculating that it’s also for safety purposes that void decks were built from the 70s onwards.

  16. 17 Gard 31 May 2011 at 11:57

    1) History lessons and biographies would have suggested that politicians making rounds to meet the common folk was not an uncommon practice.

    2) The sight of private artifacts spilling into common pedestrian passage for ground-floor residents would have irked some visiting politicians, as well as the cleaners who were the advance guards.

    3) Over time, the politicians saw the need to visit the common folk lessened; why can’t the common folk do the traveling instead to present their petitions instead in a normal functioning monarchy?

  17. 18 Des 31 May 2011 at 14:58

    I like the void decks as they are – spaces of void. Blocks of flats are built so close to one another I find it suffocating (“压迫感”, to put it in Chinese, literally oppressive). I see the void decks as a necessary breathing space, part of the lateral continuum of carparks and pockets of spaces (like grass patches) enclosed by and around the blocks. And I think this allows people to move about more freely too.

    As in Alex’s illustration of the three blocks with their void decks enclosed, besides the heat, I think I would also immediately feel “breathless”, as I get out of a car in the carpark, seeing as they are like high walls surrounding the carpark!

  18. 19 keechuan_goh@sbio.com 31 May 2011 at 17:04

    Alex,

    Minor correction. There is a PAP kindergarten at Blk 143, near St Andrew’s Village.

  19. 20 Ghanz Lek 31 May 2011 at 17:26

    They’re losing a bit of the point for “void” decks.

  20. 21 Elaine 31 May 2011 at 17:54

    HDB’s new rule/exception to now allow rental was created SPECIFICALLY for Sitoh, just like the earlier rules barring use were created SPECIFICALLY against the Opposition. I am appalled that the HDB can chop and change their rules because the PAP makes it, in order to serve its own purpose. Let Sitoh continue meeting his residents “By the light of the silvery moon” so he can tell his colleagues what they really did to Chiam >:-(

  21. 22 yawningbread 1 June 2011 at 00:13

    This letter by Chiam See Tong, in Straits Times 31 May 2011, is worth archiving here for the record:

    Straits Times Print Forum May 31, 2011
    Chiam on closure of void-deck office

    LAST Saturday’s report (‘All MPs can now rent void deck space’) mentioned that I closed the office I built in 1985 at Block 108, Potong Pasir Avenue 1 for the Meet-the-People sessions (MPS).

    This is untrue. The office was actually built by the HDB and not by me.

    In 1992, the HDB swiftly demolished my MP’s office within a day. This occurred a year after my former party (Singapore Democratic Party) won three seats in Parliament.

    I was then forced to use the void deck, and this was where I conducted my MPS.

    The premises had no toilet facilities and it was only in the last few years, through frugal savings by the Potong Pasir Town Council, that a toilet was built in that same void deck.

    Chiam See Tong

    FORUM NOTE: The writer was the MP for Potong Pasir from 1984 to 2011.

  22. 23 Vin 1 June 2011 at 10:19

    “The aim is to reduce supply of shops judiciously so that the remaining shops will become more viable.”

    This is a simplistic and myopic view of the govt to restructure the neighbourhood shops. These shops will not suddenly become more viable by eliminating some of their neighbourhood competitors.

    What they are facing are the megastores in air-conditioned malls that provide a smorgasbord of the latest gadgets and merchandise, and an entire exciting shopping experience, some even 24 hours. And what about online shopping for the rare and unique finds in the comfort of homes? These are the real competition. I don’t see how closing a few neighbourhood shops will help at all.

  23. 24 sg lee 1 June 2011 at 11:46

    Yawning Bread suggestion on void deck and neighbourhood centre is interesting. Should be explored further.

    However, i do not know why the worker party and the singapore people party never thought of that. It is not the fault of the government.

    I do not understand why Chiam or Low TK did not use their town council office.

  24. 25 DC 5 June 2011 at 13:57

    @sg lee,

    I think that is a bad idea. Town Councils are supposed to serve a non-partisan agenda and having MPs perform partisan activities like MPS in there only confuses the institution.

  25. 26 sieteocho 10 June 2011 at 12:28

    It is not that this article is hot air. Rather this article is about hot air.

  26. 27 Talc 24 July 2011 at 23:30

    There are many ways to skin a cat, and being mean spirited will sure to go a full circle back to PAPies who have not been magnanimous to the opposition. We need to put in national infrastructure for democracy to work, and one response to this is to have government constructed space to conduct MPS and make no distinct which party need to use the space. It is the people who must be served.


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