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.
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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?
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.
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.
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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?