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The Peculiar Inequality of Singapore's Famed Public Housing

Most residents of the city-state live in tidy, subsidized highrises. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the foreign workers who helped build them.

A public housing highrise in the Ghim Moh section of Singapore. (Courtesy NFB)

A typical drive through Singapore offers an almost continuous view of orderly and largely uniform highrise apartment buildings. Residents’ clothes dry in the hot, damp air on retractable hangers protruding from windows. These public housing estates, called HDBs, are generally offered at lower prices than private property and are home to more than 80 percent of Singaporeans. While some are fancier than others—one near the Central Business District, the 50-story Pinnacle@Duxton, boasts the “world’s longest sky gardens”— most, if not all, like Singapore itself, are extremely well-kept.

The people responsible for constructing these very Singaporean dwellings are overwhelmingly male migrant workers. These low-wage manual laborers, along with female migrant workers who tend to work in domestic capacities, today make up nearly one-fifth of the total population of Singapore, according to Jolovan Wham, the executive director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics, or HOME. Most hail from Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, and other Asian countries.

You might think that such workers would live in HDBs, given their ubiquity (more than one million such units existed in 2014). While some employers do house their workers in these spaces—in Singapore, employers are legally responsible for low-wage, temporary workers’ accommodations—generally this has not been the case. In fact, the government’s housing website currently shows strict quotas for subletting HDB flats to “non-citizens.” (These quotas exclude Malaysians “in view of their close cultural and historical similarities with Singaporeans.”)

A main reason for this policy appears to be HDB residents’ distaste for living near the workers. “Singaporeans are generally appreciative of the role that foreign workers play, but they don’t want them too close,” says Wham. Charan Bal, who has conducted research among Bangladeshi construction workers in Singapore and now teaches at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, Indonesia, echoes Wham. “If you house workers too close to where people live,” he says, “they’re going to complain about it,” adding that “the only place to shelter workers without neighbors complaining is in the red light districts.”

So where do these workers live, aside from red light districts? Their housing—and its isolation and often substandard condition—is an emotional topic of debate in the city-state.

Many migrant laborers live in dormitories built in partnership with the government, which may be in old factories or other converted industrial spaces, or in walkup apartments, shophouses, or construction sites. At construction sites, housing is either a temporary, standalone structure, or the workers may actually inhabit the building they are constructing. From the government’s point of view, this is fine if the site is “structurally safe,” says Wham, whose organization has been advocating against this type of housing. It’s not just about structural safety, he says. “How can you rest properly? How can you cook? The workers have to use portable toilets, and they don’t have proper sanitation. The government justifies it by saying it’s more convenient.”

It’s cheaper, too, so employers often prefer such accommodation. Bal reports that while housing four or five workers in an HDB may cost around $500 per month per worker, construction site accommodation fetches only around $200 per month per worker. And if employers house their workers (illegally) in unregistered spaces, the cost may be as low as $80 per month per worker.

A passageway is visible from a construction site dormitory for migrant workers in Singapore. (Courtesy Jolovan Wham)

Even official, registered dorms in converted factories, walkup apartments, and shophouses are often cramped and overcrowded—and “slum-like,” according to Wham. “There’s poor ventilation,” he says. “It’s a perfect breeding ground for bedbugs and cockroaches. After visiting these places, I often find myself scratching because I’ve caught some of the bedbugs.”

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower oversees housing for foreign workers and has instituted rules regarding their living conditions, such as fire safety, minimum living space, and hygiene. Dormitory inspectors check worker accommodations regularly, and can fine or jail employers who break the rules. Despite such inspections, poor conditions continue in many cases. HOME has also called attention to the “excessive” powers given to inspectors, who can break down doors and windows or arrest and detain suspected unlicensed operators or proprietors for up to 48 hours.

The government's desire to control not only housing but the workers themselves has increased since a riot took place in the Little India neighborhood on a Sunday night in December 2013. Sundays are the workers' day off, and many venture to Little India to eat, drink, and socialize. When a South Asian worker was struck and killed by one of the buses that ferry workers to and from their dormitories, a mob of 400 threw rocks and beer bottles and overturned police cars. Police subdued the crowd, and 25 were arrested—with more than half eventually charged.

While large “purpose-built dormitories” (PBDs) for workers had been planned and even constructed before the riot, since 2013 the aim of moving workers into these more spacious and hygienic—and more controlled—spaces has been more evident. One such PBD, called Tuas View and located on Singapore's west coast in an industrial area, has been featured in the city-state's (state-friendly) media.

Tuas View opened in August 2014 and has been called a “breath of fresh air” compared with other worker housing options. It has 20 four-story blocks, and can house almost 7,000. Tuas View has a gym and a basketball court, a field for open-air Bollywood movie watching, a beer garden, and a food court, as well as a supermarket, clinic, and retail stores from which to buy clothing and mobile phones. It's clean and spacious. There's almost a Pullman town-like quality to it, with the modern twist that workers are required to give their fingerprints when they arrive back at the complex, and almost 250 CCTV cameras monitor their movements.

Tuas View is the first of nine similar dorms to be built over the next several years that will add 100,000 beds to an existing 200,000 in other PBDs. According to the Ministry of Manpower, the government's long-term view is that “it would be better to house [migrant workers] in PBDs, where there are self-contained facilities to meet their social and recreational needs outside work. More PBDs will be launched and completed... with a view to move more [workers] into such self-contained housing over time.”

But because employers can find cheaper housing than the PBDs, which cost around $300 per month per worker, they have continued to seek accommodation on construction sites and in other less expensive venues. In response, the government recently froze the construction of temporary dorms in 12 industrial areas.

While conditions in the PBDs are obviously better than most laborer housing options, Wham says that “there simply aren't enough of them.” Bal takes a different tack. “It's pretty clear that they are less about the welfare of the workers,” he says. “It's more about stemming potential riots. Security concerns have superseded concerns about the well being of the workers.”

The future of housing for migrant workers in Singapore thus seems clear: if the government’s plan pans out, they will be housed in ultra-clean and highly controlled low-rise buildings—structures that are Singaporean in some ways, but that are largely set apart from Singaporean society and Singaporeans themselves.

There is one way for workers to more easily inhabit HDBs, though not by living among Singaporeans per se. Wham tells me he recently spoke with a group of Bangladeshi men who work as cleaners for the housing estates and who live in the buildings' bin centers, where trash is collected and disposed of. “Some of them are there because the apartments they live in are so crowded that they prefer them,” he says. “In the bin center, they also have more freedom to cook and do as they please.”

According to Bal, such a case is actually an improvement from workers' living conditions in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s. “Workers lived in garbage dumps or in the jungle,” he says.

“But there's of course huge room for improvement today all the same.”

This story is part of the Highrise Report, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. CityLab is proud to host the U.S. premiere of “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise,” the final interactive documentary to come out of the HIGHRISE project, produced by the NFB.

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