The Change of Social Spaces within Chinese Settlements in Singapore under National Policies

In: Journal of Chinese Overseas
Author: Yun-Tsui Yeh
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This study looks at the process of change in social spaces in Chinese settlements in Singapore and seeks to understand the circumstances in which Singaporean national policies were carried out. The spatial construction of society is used as the basis for this research into the spatial politics of public housing in Singapore. The findings show that the government exercised the politics of spatial scale in resettlement schemes and housing programs to forge a new Singaporean community. The government saw a “mixed” social space of different social-economic groups and races as the local cradle of national consciousness. Unlike earlier research this study finds that the government intentionally broke up the enclaves as local units, along with the living mode of extended families and big families.



This study looks at the process of change in social spaces in Chinese settlements in Singapore and seeks to understand the circumstances in which Singaporean national policies were carried out. The spatial construction of society is used as the basis for this research into the spatial politics of public housing in Singapore. The findings show that the government exercised the politics of spatial scale in resettlement schemes and housing programs to forge a new Singaporean community. The government saw a “mixed” social space of different social-economic groups and races as the local cradle of national consciousness. Unlike earlier research this study finds that the government intentionally broke up the enclaves as local units, along with the living mode of extended families and big families.


After gaining independence, the Singapore government implemented policies to instill a sense of national consciousness in different time frames in school and language education, public housing (since 1960), national service (since 1968), the maintenance of religious harmony (since 1989), and shared values (since 1991). Public housing is one of the government’s most important nation-building projects. Since the 1960s, public housing programs put forth by the Singapore government have dramatically changed the island’s settlement landscape. In the process of building new settlement landscapes to replace the old, social spaces created by social relationships have also changed. The difference in social spaces in the new and old settlement landscapes did not evolve naturally as it was the result of government manipulation within the framework of nation-building. The change of social spaces within the settlements typically embodied the national idea. For the Chinese, it impacted the traditional social space of the local groups.

Singapore’s housing policy has brought about much political, economic and social benefit which has been discussed by many scholars (Quah 1983; Pugh 1984; Chua 1988; Lee 2008). As for research in nation-building and housing policies, Kong and Yeoh (2003) and Sin (2003) probed into issues of national policies in public housing and the politics of racial integration. Kong and Yeoh (2003) discussed concepts in national policies deployed in public housing such as the sense of place, the multiracial concept and family values from the viewpoint of nation-building. Sin (2003) focussed on Malay groups and discussed the politics of racial integration within housing estates in Singapore. Ooi et al. (1993) surveyed the management of racial relationships within public housing by discussing the issue of racial limits as well as the quota for Malay students in neighborhood schools and local community organizations. Yeoh (2003) looked into the relationship between urban surroundings and the power in colonial Singapore and focussed on the issue of politics of space from the viewpoint of the contested space. Unlike such previous research, this paper focusses on the changes brought about by national policies on the social spaces within Chinese settlements after Singapore became independent. Other changes of social space which have no relations with nation-building will not be discussed.


We look at the hypothesis that the Singapore government exercised the politics of a spatial scale in public housing to weaken local power and create an entirely new environment for nation-building. We’ll probe into settlement landscapes to discuss the changes in settlement composition and social spaces. This also means we’ll observe different social spaces which were projected by the population compositions of new and old settlements. First, we’ll talk about the population compositions and social spaces within new and old Chinese settlements separately. Then we will discuss the deconstructions which accompanied the changes made to the social spaces of traditional local Chinese groups.

Concept and Method

This piece of research centers on the spatial construction of society. The spatial constructionist looks upon spaces not only as material objects but also as symbolic attributes. He/she takes the view that the spatial model represents social relations and also shapes social relations (Smith 2005: 18-24). Such a viewpoint of the relationship between space and society questions the idea that men have actions only on land, and takes into consideration the concept of spatial capabilities, and the view that men and land have constant interactions. This new geographic viewpoint helps us to understand the spatial politics of public housing in Singapore. The basic concept of spatial construction of society is that space not only can reflect social relations, but actively influence them as well. Spatial constructionists focus on influences which are generated by space during the process of social construction. They are not only conscious of how particular social groups spread across physical space, but of how spatial arrangements, place and position actively contribute to the construction and reproduction of social identities (Smith 2005: 23). “Space is no longer a category of fixed and given ontological attributes, but is becoming an emerging property of social relationship” (Jiménez 2003: 140, cited in Agnew 2005: 92).

This paper is based on fieldwork and document analyses. The fieldwork was conducted in July 2006, 2007 and 2008. Initially we held meetings to learn about the profile of Chinese society in Singapore. In order to provide some illustrations, we chose several cases and conducted in-depth interviews and group interviews. Semi-structured interviews were carried out to gather materials. The interviews centered on the following topics: 1. life in the old kampong; 2. the process of resettlement; 3. whether villagers still live together after resettlement and why; 4. opinions of interviewees about kampong life and HDB estate life. Out of respect for our interviewees’ privacy, code names have been used. The interview data and cases were used only to make up the research questions or represent some aspects of the actual circumstances, not to provide solutions to the questions. Most of our explanation is based on the analyses of the official statements especially those published in the Straits Times.

Residential Segregation during the Colonial Period

Chinese immigrants and their descendants had made a significant contribution to the cultural landscape in colonial Singapore. Although architecturally Chinese settlement landscapes may have partially incorporated Malay and European elements, we can still get a glimpse of the culture of the original Chinese homeland. Chinese settlement landscapes generated a Chinese cultural atmosphere which differed from other races thus injecting an element of racial residential segregation. Furthermore, as we looked into the social spaces, regardless of whether they were downtown or in the kampong, the Chinese settlement landscape itself gave the impression of a close-knit social relationship among the inhabitants.

The Organized Principle of Chinese Settlements

In order to adapt themselves to a strange and new environment abroad, Chinese immigrants organized themselves into groups to face the challenges in Singapore during colonial times. Freedman and Topley (1994), Mak (1985) and Lim (2002) took the view that sharing the same dialect was a basic criterion for the Chinese to organize themselves in colonial Singapore where various groups usually worshipped the spirits in temples as a community. When a group sharing a dialect and treating a temple as a symbol of identity settled in the same space, a local Chinese group was formed. When Freedman and Topley (1994) studied Chinese society and religion in Singapore, they pointed out that in the early days speakers of one dialect tended to cluster residentially, form voluntary associations, worship in the same temples, and marry one another (Freedman & Topley 1994: 162). Wu (1975) held that Chinese in Singapore inherited their traditional family and clan values; people who came from the same village or belonged to the same clan and dialect group preferred to inhabit the same area (Wu 1975: 14). Mak (1985) shared the argument as put forward by Freedman and Topley. He took the view that new immigrants who came to Singapore and Malaya in the early days would live near the people with whom they could communicate in their native dialects at least for the first few years. With the onset of mass migration, this situation became entrenched when the immigrants set up their social facilities such as meeting places, temples, assembly halls and ancestral halls. More and more people from the same hometown came to inhabit the same area (Mak 1985: 67). In colonial Singapore, local Chinese groups who spoke the same dialects and inhabited the same kampong or streets always set up their own temples with their deities as places of worship and identification. Such circumstances typically represented the principle of organized settlements in their hometowns in China where temples were used to integrate the local people.

There were not necessarily peaceful relationships among the Chinese settlements during the colonial period. In the 19th century, the Chinese formed numerous groups called bang such as the “Cantonese bang” and “Teochew bang” because of the separateness of the groups. Lim (2002) took the view that bang politics was highly polarized, confrontational, and characterized by introversion, exclusiveness and defensiveness. Hence each bang had a self-delimited boundary and was a small society in itself. But upon entering the 20th century, the confrontational atmosphere among the bangs was dissolved. The establishment of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1906 signified the end of the polarized politics of the bangs (Lim 2002: 49).

During the first half of the 20th century, although there was no strong confrontation between the Chinese groups, demarcation lines still existed among bangs until Singapore attained independence. According to Liu (2003), Chinese society was still deeply entrenched in the bang structures in the early postwar days when Chinese formed different types of bangs through ties of hometown, dialect and business (Liu 2003: 4). As such, under the bang structure, each Chinese settlement in Singapore was a representation of a close man-land relationship. Each Chinese settlement was not only a small and close-knit society, but a self-demarcated and exclusive social space of a local group. People distinguished themselves from those who belonged to other settlements in the process of Chinese residential segregation.

Social Spaces of Local Chinese Groups in Urban Areas

In the 19th century, local Chinese groups in urban areas were segregated by dialects. The spatial scale of classification of groups was minimized down to a street. Hokkien Street, Amoy Street and Telok Ayer Street, for example, were mainly inhabited by the Hokkiens; Smith Street, Macao Street and Hong Kong Street were dwelled in by the Cantonese; most Hakkas lived in Cross Street, North Pekin Street and Nankin Street; Teochews mainly inhabited Philip Street and Circular Road.1 Such dialect enclaves still existed in urban areas in the early 1950s.

Dialect groups continued to have their separate enclaves in the downtown area when Singapore gained its independence. For instance, the Cantonese were in Kreta Ayer, the Hokkiens in Telok Ayer, the Teochews in the Upper Serangoon area and in Boat Quay, and the Hainanese on Beach Road/Middle Road (Straits Times 1989.01.07). With regard to Chinese residential segregation in downtown areas, Cheng (1985) indicated that the colonial policy of divide and rule had led to the emergence of a bang-structured society in which Chinese were divided by dialects (Cheng 1985: 194). By and large, this notion is tenable, but the point has been made that Chinese immigrant society was prone to congregate on dialect lines; the colonial urban plan should be taken as a reinforcement of residential segregation and not the cause. In addition to the residential segregation of dialect groups downtown, it also appeared that some businesses clustered in certain areas. Mak (1985) did a study of the distribution of Chinese dialect groups in downtown Singapore and made the point that Chinese immigrants hived by dialects. Because of the inter-connectedness of industries, languages and parties, towns which ran different businesses attracted different locality groups (Mak 1985: 14). Therefore certain dialect groups and certain businesses formed their own clusters, and gave names to streets which were already well known by their businesses such as Teochew Carriage Street (Circular Road), Coffin Street (Hong Kong Street) and Hokkien Carriage Street (Hokkien Street).

The urban Chinese lived in groups based on their dialects in streets or blocks and often had their own places of worship. This residential pattern had evolved from the principle which used a temple to unite the people in their homeland. The spatial politics of Chinese residential segregation was minimized to a block or a street in downtown Singapore.

Social Spaces of Local Chinese Groups in Rural Areas

The rural areas were not affected by the residential planning in colonial policy. Rural Chinese congregated naturally by dialects; they might also form villages in accordance with blood ties, business ties or hometown ties. For example the Pan clan which came from Nanan Lunei in Fujian Province inhabited Heng Leh Pah Village near upper Sungai Seletar in northern Singapore. Their clansmen established the Pan village based on hometown, kinship, and business ties, and built the Heng Shan Temple as the center of identification and agglomeration (Lim 1991: 6, 8).2 The Wong immigrants who came from Tong’an in Fujian Province inhabited Boon Teck Road and established their own temple as a place of worship.3

Since the 20th century the housing problem has become more serious. People have been moving from downtown to rural areas. For example, at the cemeteries in Peck San Theng, various dialect groups had moved in; some even did that to avoid the war and during the Japanese occupation. There were about 30 households at Peck San Theng originally, but in the postwar years increasing numbers of people from the downtown areas were moving there so that in 1970-80s, 300-400 households were living in rented accommodation at Peck San Theng. Zeng and Zhuang (2000) indicated that among the ten cemeteries at Peck San Theng, the first to the third cemeteries built in the early days were mainly inhabited by the Cantonese, the fourth to the seventh cemeteries put up in the first half of the 20th century were occupied by the Teochews and Hokkiens, the 8th to 10th cemeteries built after World War II were inhabited by Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese (Zeng and Zhuang 2000: 161-67). The phenomenon also showed that certain dialect groups tended to inhabit certain cemeteries.

Additionally, we find that different dialect groups might mix in the same settlement while maintaining residential segregation at the level of a locality as in the case of Tian Ji Garden. Tian Ji Garden typically consisted of the Heng Hwas and Hainanese including two HengHwa local groups and a Hainanese local group, with each local group establishing its own place of worship. It appeared that different local groups hived in the same space but maintained certain spatial segregation.4

As we probed into the internal settlement landscapes and explored the make-up and social space of settlements, we discovered that residential segregation actually existed in Chinese society itself. It also meant that under self-demarcated boundaries among the local Chinese groups, segregation took place among different settlements. Geographically, it generated a specific man-man relationship and land-land relationship like its counterpart downtown. Chinese settlements made an effort to follow the principle of using temples to integrate people as in their native hometowns. People were typically classified by dialects, business ties, hometown ties and their kinship. They formed enclaves marked by the exclusiveness, the close man-land relationship, and the self-identified local groups within every Chinese settlement. It also showed a social space of residential segregation of local Chinese groups.

A Mixed Space within Public Housing since the 1960s

In nation-building, racial residential segregation and even residential segregation of local Chinese groups in Singapore are seen as harmful to national development and should therefore be eliminated. Although the implementation of public housing should be attributed to Singapore’s land scarcity and housing problems, making use of social spaces within public housing to achieve the purpose of nation-building was an important element of national policy. Through land acquisition and housing programs which broke up traditional social spaces within the old settlements, the government proceeded to build new social spaces in public housing to construct a national ideology for Singapore.

HDB Flat Types and the Mix of Social and Economic Classes

There were different schemes relating to flat types in Singapore public housing which were built in different periods. In the first five-year program (1960-1965), the Housing and Development Board (HDB) began building emergency and standard model flats ranging from one room to four rooms. In the second five-year program (1966-1970), the HDB added the improved-model flats ranging from one room to four rooms with larger floor areas. In the early 1970s, a new five-room flat was created and in the 1980s the “executive housing” unit was constructed (Tan & Phang 1991: 18). It was announced that studio apartments would be built for senior citizens in November 1997 (Foo 1998: 100). According to statistics, the total number of housing properties managed by HDB was 885,140 units through 31 March 2008. Looking at the total number of flats managed by the HDB, one-room flats, two-room flats and studio apartments accounted for about 5.8%, three-room flats made up 25.1%, four-room flats 38%, five-room flats accounted for 23.5%, and executive housing units and HUDC made up 7.6% (HDB 2008: 65); the larger the flat, the more it cost.

With regard to the distribution of flat types, a block usually housed only one type of flat in order to maintain comparability in the socio-economic status of the owners and their families; the smaller the flat type, the stricter the application of this principle. Sometimes three-room flats and four-room flats or four-room flats and five-room flats would be mixed in the same building (Liu 1975a: 137). Later on in order to attain a balanced ratio of different social and economic groups in public housing, the HDB tried to mix different blocks of flats on a planned site, or to mix flats of similar sizes within a block, such as a mix of two-room and three-room flats, of three-room and four-room flats, and of four-room and five-room flats (Wong & Yeh eds. 1985: 71). The government thus resorted to spatial politics to construct a mixed social space of different social and economic groups by the distribution of flat types in the blocks.

Racial Quotas and Racial Mix in Public Housing

The allocation of housing flats is an effective way to implement national policy. The HDB has adopted the “first-come-first-served” principle to allocate flats since 1960. Its methods of allocation went through several changes from 1. individual registration, 2. zone registers, 3. balloting, to 4. selection (Wong & Yeh eds. 1985: 248-50).

The official discourse gave the impression that the government wanted to use public housing to implement nation-building. In 1965 the Minister for National Development, Lim Kim San, said that racial harmony among HDB tenants had shown the rest of the Malaysian region an example of unity in diversity. He thought that there was no better way of understanding the problems arising out of the differences in religion, language, culture and tradition than by living close to each other, and this was the reason why the HDB tried to mix the various races in housing estates (Straits Times 1965.07.19). In 1982 the Minister of National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, also expressed his view that public housing had helped transform the Republic into a truly Singaporean community, and that a public housing estate became identifiable solely by its name, and no longer by its community grouping (Straits Times 1982.01.02). From such discourses, we know that the mixing of various races within a public housing estate was deemed a signifier of a Singaporean community in the eyes of the government.

According to the statement made by the Minister of National Development, S. Dhanabalan, on 6 January 1989, the government had attempted to break up enclaves which existed everywhere in Singapore, and to promote interaction and understanding among the races by the allocation of HDB flats. He said, “We have come a long way since independence because our policies in education, national service and public housing have fostered social and racial integration. . . . But the real achievement is not in the buildings and facilities. Our real achievement is that we have been able to build whole new communities, based on social and racial integration. The public housing program has been instrumental in fostering a cohesive nation out of an immigrant population comprising different ethnic, religious, dialect, and economic groups. . . . The massive public housing effort gave us the opportunity to mix the population. We made sure that every HDB new town and estate had a balanced mix of racial groups. . . . We are able to break up the communal enclaves in the 1960s and 1970s because we had a massive resettlement and public housing program . . .” (Straits Times 1989.01.07). In an interview with the Straits Times more than three weeks later he said, “[S]ince the 1970s, the HDB has tried to allocate new flats in the manner that would give a good distribution of races to different new towns while keeping close to the first-come-first-served principle” (Straits Times 1989.01.31). It is obvious that there was an idea to break up the concentration of a single race and to integrate the races into a Singaporean community behind the principle of fair allocation of flats. The allocation of flats was an important means to construct a national ideology. Addressing a New Year gathering for grassroots leaders at the People’s Association, Dhanabalan brought up an important issue on public housing, revealing measures that the government took to scatter ethnic groups in housing estates. Dhanabalan pointed out that “we are beginning to detect two disturbing trends in public housing, which, if left unchecked, would undermine our efforts to foster social and racial integration. First, certain HDB estates are attracting residents of a particular race. . . . Second, with the emergence of a growing resale market for HDB flats, this regrouping along racial lines is gathering momentum.” That is to say, the racial enclaves which the government was unwilling to see had reappeared in the HDB estates after 20-30 years (Table 1, Map 1). Dhanabalan mentioned that “we were able to break up the communal enclaves in the 1960s and 1970s because we had a massive resettlement and public housing program. We cannot afford another massive resettlement and housing program to break up the communal enclaves that we believe are now beginning to form. . . . We must introduce open and clear policies that will prevent such concentrations from developing. . . . A balanced racial and social mix in practically every constituency today has helped us to avoid racial and social tensions. It leads to harmonious living and better understanding among the races. This policy is necessary for the long-term stability of our nation. It is the way to ensure inter-racial harmony for our future generations” (Straits Times 1989.01.07).

Hence from the government’s viewpoint, breaking up racial enclaves and promoting racial integration were deemed beneficial insofar as they could promote inter-racial understanding and achieve racial integration and national stability. Racial segregation or racial integration in residential space was an important issue in a national discourse. The government’s assumption was that racial enclaves were contrary to national harmony and unity. But from Table 1 we know that the “racial enclaves” referred to by Dhanabalan simply meant that one race had a higher proportion in an estate than its total proportion in the Singapoare population. In other words, Dhanabalan took the racial proportions in an HDB estate to be representative of the Singapore population at large.

Table 1:

Racial Enclaves in HDB Estates, 1988 (examples)

Table 1:

Note: * Percentage of total numbers of households in the estate.

Source: Straits Times 1989.02.17.

Map 1:
Map 1:

Old and new enclaves (examples).

Citation: Journal of Chinese Overseas 8, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/179325412X634292

After Dhanabalan pointed out that certain racial enclaves had developed in some HDB estates and a new policy was decided on to prevent such concentrations from developing, there were keen public discussions throughout Singapore on the topic. Some praised Dhanabalan for bringing the issue to light. They agreed with him on the need for a racial mix to attain social integration and harmony, and backed the government in taking action to prevent racial enclaves from expanding (Straits Times 1989.01.07). Others believed that racial enclaves simply emerged from economic needs, e.g. those Malays who could not afford expensive flats in a new town resorted to buying secondhand flats in Bedok/Tampines, or those who just wanted to live near their relatives and friends (Straits Times 1989.01.13, 1989.01.17).5 Residents in Hougang — Chinese and Malays alike — all denied any hints of racial disharmony and insisted that the community lived together peacefully even though Hougang New Town was mainly inhabited by the Chinese (Straits Times 1989.01.07). The government was worried that Singapore would return to a state of social discord of the pre-1965 period if enclaves constantly expanded even though racial enclaves hadn’t hindered the process of national development. After discussing and negotiating for some time, the government announced the imposition of new racial limits in public housing estates on 16 February 1989 which took effect on 1 March 1989. This new policy took into account the population’s racial mix and the projected demand for flats by each racial group, based on the rate at which new households were formed. New racial limits were set for each neighborhood and block of flats (Table 2) (Business Times 1989.02.17).

Table 2:

Racial Mix in Neighborhoods and Blocks

Table 2:

Note: * June 1988 population estimates by Department of Statistics.

Source: Straits Times 1989.02.17.

From 1 March 1989, the sale and resale of the HDB flats were governed by racial limits in each neighborhood and block of flats. This new policy also applied the first-come-first-served principle in the allocation of new flats and the resale of flats. Take the resale of flats for example, every flat owner would generally be able to sell his flat to anyone from the same ethnic group. Racial limits would be imposed only in transactions between buyers and sellers of different races in the affected neighborhoods or blocks (Business Times 1989.02.17).

Public housing was originally part of a material landscape in space, but as the government imposed the rule of “racial mix,” it became a tool of national integration. Under the rule on racial limits, every neighborhood or every block was like a microcosm of Singapore society. The housing landscape became the representation of the national image in everyday life, and the mixed racial population was a reflection of the general population. The social spaces of the racial mix within HDB estates was an illustration of the government’s national goal of putting the various ethnic groups under the same roof.

New Community Organizations and Racial Integration

In order to put people of different ethnic groups and from different kampongs in the same HDB estates, new community organizations were set up with a view to cultivating communal cohesiveness.

In the early 1950s, community centers were set up in public housing estates to foster a spirit of community. This task was then taken over by three NGOs — the Residents’ Committees (RCs), the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCCs) and the Community Centers Management Committees (CCMCs). According to Mr. Goh Chok Tong, if each new town was made up of strong communities, then Singapore would be able to withstand any crisis. If each community was united, it would not be adversely impacted by crises or storms (Ang Mo Kio Constituency Residents’ Committees 1980: 5). A new community consciousness is thus vital for the building of a national consciousness.

The CCC was set up in 1965 and occupied the highest position of the three. Members of the CCC are volunteers and are not restricted to the locals. The CCC is mainly used as the medium for putting across the government’s policy (Ooi et al. 1993: 46); its goal is generally to gage public opinions, and the MP of the constituency plays the role of a bridge between the people and the government (Chen 1985: 101). Members of the CCMC are also volunteers and membership is again not restricted to the locals. The main function of the CCMC is to run community centers and conduct activities including holding computer and cookery classes. The CCMC has two sub-branches: a women’s sub-committee and a youth group (Wong & Yeh, eds. 1985: 283-84, 304). In addition to the recreational function, the community center is a bridge between the government and people. It is also the main organization that helps the government to explain its policies to the public and to mobilize the folks to support the government (Chen 1979: A54). The community center can promote interaction between local residents through organizing activities, and it can be used as a place for social gatherings to foster national consciousness (Community Center 1966: 231-32). Since 1978 the RCs have been set up everywhere; they are also communal organizations of volunteers made up of local people to promote harmony in the HDB estates, as well as racial harmony and communal cohesiveness in general. There is one RC for every seven or eight blocks (Ooi et al. 1993: 46). It has received constant support from the government from the beginning, and keeps close contact with the HDB. Additionally, the Singapore government set up the People’s Association (PA) as a semi-official organization for promoting racial harmony and cohesiveness in local society, promoting the idea of nation-building, and acting as a bridge between the government and the people. The PA’s function is to bring about cohesiveness among the people through various activities held by community centers and RCs around the country.6

The setting up of CCCs, CCMCs and RCs brought local leaders of different racial and social backgrounds together. These leaders could discuss communal benefits and appreciate the specific concerns of each race in their community (Straits Times 1989.01.07). In 1978 an official pointed out that the class segregation and barrier existing in the HDB estates could be alleviated through common activities held in the community centers for people from various social levels (Straits Times 1978.04.24). These local organizations which keep close contact with the government have become the medium of policy propaganda and the downward infiltration of government power as well as policy implementation, even though they are presented as NGOs.

Social spaces are the geographical projection of social relations. The Singapore government has used the allocation of flat types, racial limits and community organizations to integrate different social, economic, and racial groups in new and mixed social spaces which is obviously different from the residential segregation in the colonial period. Social spaces in the HDB estates are no longer divided by economic or racial factors; they are a means of nation-building employed by the Singapore government.

Change of Traditional Social Spaces of Chinese Local Groups under the Public Housing Policy

What then has happened to the traditional social spaces under the government policy of achieving a racial mix and racial integration in the residential spaces since the 1960s? The clearance work in urban planning was a turning point for Singapore in its stride toward a modern society. Before the government took action to clear the squatter areas or slums to acquire land for re-development, it had to provide affordable flats for resettlement for those residents who did not have their own alternatives. Liu and Chen noted that the HDB flats were located near the residents’ original homes (Liu 1975a: 118; Chen 1973: 583). But the resettlement which was deemed fair and reasonable, in fact, broke up the social spaces of Chinese local groups when the enclaves were destroyed.

Most studies have demonstrated that the Singapore government worked hard to break up racial enclaves and mix the different races in the HDB estates. One of the goals of this study is to see how deeply the politics of spatial scale were embedded in the government’s resettlement and housing programs.

Destruction of Traditional Social Spaces within Chinese Settlements

Because ethnic Chinese made up the majority in Singapore’s population, the rule of racial limits in 1989 did not have much impact on this group (Sin 2002: 1367). In the case of the Chinese, it was the resettlement policy, rather than the racial limits, that has had a greater impact.

Since 1960, the HDB has resorted to the acquisition of private land, clearance work and housing programs which have resulted in the rapid disappearance of kampongs and old towns. The massive populace was moved from their dwellings and resettled in high-rise buildings in the HDB estates in various locations. In 1960, only 9% of Singapore’s total population was living in the HDB estates (HDB 2008:60). Most people lived in rural areas or old shop houses downtown. With the implementation of land acquisition and resettlement programs by the HDB, 39.3% of the households were moved to the HDB flats, and households in old shop houses, atap-roof houses and zinc-roof houses were reduced to 40.6% in 1970. In 1980 the percentages were respectively 72.2% and 13.7%. In 2000, 88% of the households were living in the HDB estates while the proportion of households in shop houses, atap-roof houses and zinc-roof houses was under 1% (Tan & Phang 1991: 13; Leow 2000a: 74). The change in housing types reflected the process of transformation of the residential landscape; it also meant the collapse of kampongs and old towns.

Land acquisition marked the beginning of the collapse and destruction of kampongs and old towns. The land acquisition policy forced people to move out of their homes in the case of those who were unwilling to do so. Considering the many and obvious public advantages and corresponding resettlement programs, there were no serious conflicts between the government and people during the process of land acquisition although some people felt compelled to put up some weak resistance to the move. In order to acquire the land for re-development, though the government did not use force, it did resort to certain means to make people move out such as cutting off the supply of water and electricity.7 The Straits Times carried a news report about a resettlement case as follows. A place prone to fire incidents at Siglap was scheduled to be appropriated for housing development, but a few families in the area refused to move out. The government accused certain “irresponsible elements” of encouraging a few families to stay put thus obstructing government plans to rebuild the area into a modern housing estate. In a very short time it obtained a court’s order to dispossess those families (Straits Times 1962.07.09). After the 1970s there was less and less resistance to government policy, possibly owing to the population’s diminishing doubts about the resettlement policy and also its fading hope of winning the case vis-à-vis the government. It could also be because modern living in high-rise buildings was becoming an irreversible trend for the Singaporeans.

With regard to the circumstances of resettlement, the following two cases illustrate the personal experiences of those who were forced to resettle. Mr. HAM felt that “the government had made resettlement plans for the resettlement, they dispersed people from the same kampong to different housing estates, and didn’t let you live together.”8 Mr. HAM’s statement shows that the government separated local Chinese groups intentionally through the resettlement. In another case, Mr. NCM said, “We originally lived in a kampong in Bishan. The government wanted to redevelop the land into HDB estates, so people were relocated to the HDB flats in other areas. We were resettled in Toa Payoh, some people were put in Ang Mo Kio later, and still others were resettled in other places. We all came from Pu Tian in Hokkien (Fujian Province) before.”9 In the case of Mr. NCM, although he didn’t express his views on the resettlement, his experience showed that a group from a Chinese locality was scattered and relocated to several places over Singapore. Unlike these two cases, Mr. TAM had a different resettlement experience. He said, “the villagers were forced to move out from our kampong and the entire group was resettled into housing estates in Ang Mo Kio; some people chose to live in the same block, and others chose to live in an area near the blocks.”10 His statement suggests that people who were forced to move could choose to live nearby. In the interviews of those affected in two other cases, the government’s idea about racial quotas in the HDB estates was mentioned, but the two discussions were not alike regarding the ways of resettlement. Still another case documented Mrs. HCF’s resettlement experience and showed that “in order to build public housing [blocks], or to construct roads, the government forced people to move out from their kampongs. We were forced to move several times and finally into an HDB flat. We [had] moved from this kampong to another [one], built an atap-roof house on my relative’s vacant land. The government didn’t force people to move into the HDB flats then, as long as you could find vacant land to build an atap-roof house, you could still live in the rural areas. If you wanted to live in an HDB flat, you could choose a flat for yourself, but [you] must follow some government rules, such as there must be a Malay household among several households.”11 In another interview with Mr. TUM, he said, “When our kampong in Bishan was legally acquired in the early days, the government had built new housing flats for resettlement purposes. There was a certain percentage for the Malays, and the government wouldn’t let the whole kampong live in the same HDB block. The government was [wary] of disorder and violence which might be caused by the people, and therefore, Chinese were not allowed to live in groups.”12 Those resettlement experiences and the racial limits of 1989 showed that the government did not force everyone to move into HDB flats as the houses they were living in had been legally acquired. People could make their own decisions on whether to resettle to other rural areas, but if they chose to move into the HDB flats, they had to obey the government’s quotas for the races.

Summing up the resettlement experiences of the inhabitants who chose to move into the HDB flats, there were two views about the government’s resettlement policy. The one is that the government intentionally dispersed the villagers who originally lived in the same kampong into residential spaces. The other is that people who chose to live in the HDB flats had the right to live with their original neighbors. These two different resettlement experiences suggest that besides mixing different races in the HDB estates the Singapore government also exercised the politics of space to break up the local groups intentionally. Was this the ulterior motive of the government or a by-product of the resettlement and housing policy? To answer this question, we can only rely on the Straits Times’ analysis of the official government statements, for the Singapore government rarely revealed its intentions of breaking up enclaves especially in the early days. The Straits Times published a special report on 6 August 1981, in which it said that there were 460 families from three kampongs that moved into the HDB flats without tears or goodbyes as they could still live with their kith and kin and even with their neighbors (Straits Times 1981.08.06). This report could be evidence that villagers from the same kampong were scattered to different places under the general resettlement conditions. It is interesting to note that when the Minister for National Development, S. Dhanabalan, addressed a New Year’s gathering of grassroots leaders at the People’s Association in 1989, he even mentioned the social circumstances in the early days of gaining independence. He said, “various sections of our population at that time were gathered in different pockets distinguishable by their racial or dialect groups” and “the Chinese were fragmented into dialect groups each with its own enclaves: the Cantonese in Kreta Ayer, the Hokkiens in Telok Ayer, the Teochews in the Upper Serangoon area and in Boat Quay, and the Hainanese in Beach Road/Middle Road” (Straits Times 1989.01.07). It is obvious that the government was very conscious of the enclaves of local Chinese groups differentiated by dialects, and enclaves were exactly what the government wanted to destroy by using public housing. And in an interview with the Straits Times, Dhanabalan answered the question about the past resettlement policies. He said that “not all families from a particular village are resettled en block in one estate. Of course you will find several families from one village in one estate but they form a small proportion of the population in the entire neighborhood” (Strait Times 1989.01.31). This statement may be the strongest evidence of the government’s attempt to break up the local groups by resettling people from their enclaves to the HDB flats.

Two different kinds of resettlement experiences have pointed to “the dispersion” and “the togetherness,” which have since occurred in Singapore. These two paradoxical resettlement phenomena can best be understood by looking back at the social and national context at the time. Zeng (2006) indicated that after attaining independence the Singapore government made policies to inculcate a national identity prior to racial identity. In the case of the Chinese, the government fostered a sense of national consciousness and national identity while lowering and suppressing the importance of Chinese cultural and racial identity. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Singapore government started to encourage and preserve the cultures and traditions of the races in the face of the changing economic environment resulting from China’s rising economy in the Asia-Pacific area (Zeng 2006: 86, 89). In such a national and social context, the allocation of the HDB flats as mentioned above should be interpreted as the government allowing the people to have limited choices of the HDB flats. While the local groups were very strong and racial enclaves were deemed harmful to national harmony in the early days of independence (Sin 2003: 532), it was deemed necessary for the government to separate and weaken the traditional local powers by implementing urban planning. After the 1980s when the entire political and social environment was becoming more stable, the urgency of enforcing that policy was relatively low and the government could afford to be more elastic in its resettlement strategy, like in the cases of three kampongs discussed in the Straits Times above.

Whether a local Chinese group was resettled to various areas or to blocks in the same urban planning area, it was the beginning of the de-construction of social spaces within traditional settlements as people were forced to move. Here we select two cases of different resettlement eras, livelihoods, and ways of resettlement that are representative of some of the circumstances in Singapore.

1. The Case of Kampong TM

Kampong TM was situated in Toa Payoh. It was acquired by the HDB for the purpose of development, and the villagers were forced to move out in the mid-1960s. Most villagers earned their living by cultivating vegetables, breeding chickens and ducks, and producing dried soybean curd. With the government’s decision to acquire the land, many villagers chose to move to other rural areas to continue living their way of life, only to face continued pressure to move again. Some people who were engaged primarily in industry and commerce moved into the HDB flats initially. After their respective resettlements, just 16 members of a council that dealt with the running of their original kampong temple now live in 11 different urban planning areas.13

2. The Case of Kampong LZ

Kampong LZ was situated in Bishan where the villagers were mainly engaged in taxi-driving or the production of auto parts. The inhabitants here were forced to move out in the 1980s when the government was making plans to build HDB estates there. Most villagers were resettled in HDB flats in Ang Mo Kio. After 20 years, each household has set up a separate household because of the arrival of babies, children growing up or getting married. The original kampong villagers were then scattered throughout 17 urban planning areas.14

According to the foregoing statement by Dhanabalan, the Singapore government broke up enclaves with their dialects, races and economies in the villages through resettling people in HDB flats. Its aim was to break up enclaves and re-mix people in public housing to forge “one Singapore.” As for Kampong TM, the government proceeded with land acquisition which brought with it the result of breaking up the inhabitants. Most villagers found their own way to other rural areas when they were forced to leave and accordingly people were spread into different places and their traditional social space was broken up.

Unlike the situation in Kampong TM, Kampong LZ was forced to move later and most of the villagers were engaged in the secondary and tertiary industrial sectors. By the 1980s, living in the HDB flats had become inevitable and it was difficult to find rural areas to live in. Besides, as in our previous discussion, after the 1970s the Singapore government could afford to be more elastic in its resettlement policy owing to the change in the social and economic environment. Most villagers were offered HDB flats in Ang Mo Kio as part the resettlement scheme. Because their new homes were in the vicinity, their social spaces were only slightly affected. But the fact that they were forced to move and pushed into modern society rapidly by the government constituted the major cause of the breakdown of social spaces.

Breakdown of Traditional Extended Families

In addition to the destruction of traditional social space within the settlements, another outcome of the replacement of traditional Chinese settlements by high-rise buildings was the breakdown of the traditional extended family in Chinese culture. Together with the increase in the number of females becoming more educated and joining the workforce, high-rise living is another factor for the decrease in the number of extended families. The former Parliamentary Secretary (Culture and Education), Inche Sha’ari Tadin, said publicly that Housing Board flats were ideal only for families with two and, at most, three children, as they tend to limit the size of each family (Straits Times 1972.08.07). Liu (1975b) also pointed out that because the floor size of a high-rise flat is fixed, the “house size” could not expand to accommodate an increasing number of people in the household. Thus there is need to buy another flat in the vicinity for the expanding household (Liu 1975b: 13). That is why the ability to buy a new flat has become the basic requirement for people considering marriage in Singapore.

Chinese immigrants brought the concept of extended families to Singapore. However, the living style of an extended family wasn’t applicable as most Chinese came as individual immigrants in the early days. In 1947 the average size of Chinese households in Singapore was about 4 persons in the urban areas and 7.3 persons in the rural areas, and both areas were mainly inhabited by nuclear families (Freedman 1957: 30-32, 38). As for the Chinese household structure in 1957, the single households made up 17%, the no-family nucleus, 4.3%, the one family nucleus, 66.6%, and nucleus with more than one family, 12.1% (Ye 1968: 442).15 It is apparent that the one-family nucleus households was the main stream in Singapore’s Chinese society during the colonial period.

The HDB flats which were built during the first ten years were mostly one-room to three-room flats with only a few four-room flats. Beginning in the 1970s it was customary to build three-room to five-room flats, and executive and HUDC flats. The HDB nearly stopped building one-room and two-room flats after 1974 (Wong & Yeh eds. 1985: 65). Although the number of rooms in a flat has increased, the biggest five-room flat or the executive flat would have four bedrooms at most, and the one-room to three-room flats would have only one to two bedrooms. The larger the flat, the higher the price, and not everyone could afford to buy a large flat. The change in size of residential spaces has led the change in the living style of extended families or big families. The design and number of rooms of the HDB flats transformed Singapore into a “smaller-family” society.

Apart from the fact that the HDB flat types are not suitable for raising big families, the government also adopted a “smaller family policy” by relaxing its restrictions on the number of persons who were eligible to apply for HDB flats.16 The Census of Population 2000 showed that 86.6% of the resident Chinese population lived in HDB estates, and the average household size had shrunk to 3.6 persons. As for the household structure, the “no family” nucleus made up 13.0%, the one-family nucleus increased to 81.7%, while the two or more-than-two family nucleus made up only 5.2%17 (Leow 2000b: ix; Leow 2000a: 72). There has evidently been a decrease in the numbers of extended families or big families in Singapore Chinese society.

The change in family size also brought about changes in the network of family members and the spatial route which was projected by the linking network. In order to understand the process of the breakdown of the Chinese extended family in Singapore, we shall examine two cases below.

1. The Case of the TUM Family

Mr. TUM and his family originally lived in a kampong in Peck San Theng. The main family members included the parents, four brothers and five sisters. The household was an extended family before they were forced to move in 1982. With the exception of the three sisters who had got married, the family members who lived together included the parents, the eldest brother’s family, the second eldest brother’s family, Mr. TUM himself, a younger brother and two younger sisters, totaling at least eleven persons.

In 1982 the government acquired Peck San Theng for re-development purposes and the TUM family and other villagers living in the same kampong were forced to move and were resettled in HDB flats. Because a HDB flat came with only a few rooms, it was unsuitable for a big family. The government hence helped people with priority to buy a new flat. The eldest brother’s family and the second eldest brother’s family moved out of the original household and bought their new HDB flats respectively in Hougang and Ang Mo Kio. Mr. TUM and his four single brothers and sisters along with their parents moved into a four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio and thus the number of family members living in the same household was reduced to seven. As they became older, Mr. TUM and his brothers and sisters got married and moved out, and the four-room flat was left with the third eldest brother’s family and their parents. Thus with the passage of time, the TUM family which was formerly an extended family at Peck San Theng has been divided into several nuclear families or stem families (Figure 1).

These days the TUM family members living in different places use the four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio where their parents live as a meeting place. They would get together on special holidays but only infrequently, i.e. less than once a month.18

2. The Case of the CAF Family

Mrs. CAF’s family was also forced to move because the government wanted to acquire land for redevelopment, but the process of setting up a separate household differed from that of the TUM family. There were nine members in the CAF family which included the parents and seven children. Because the children were so young and the family could not afford to buy a large flat, they just moved into a one-room flat when they were resettled. Some of the small children slept with their parents in the bedroom and the remainder slept in smaller, partitioned areas in the living room.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:
The process of setting-up separate households in the case of the TUM family.

Citation: Journal of Chinese Overseas 8, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/179325412X634292

Mrs. CAF’s family never developed into an extended family; the household broke up as the children grew up and got married. When the eldest brother got married, the family became an extended family for a period of time. When the second eldest brother was thinking of getting married, the one-room flat was too small to accommodate a new couple. Thus in the process of the children becoming married, the household was separated into various nuclear families and stem families.19

Lai (1995) pointed out that ties of clan and race weren’t taken into consideration in the making of resettlement policies; they were reconstructed and even as one family was resettled in various separate households, new and separate households were formed along with marriages. These households kept their linkage principally by choosing flats in the vicinity (Lai 1995: 127). Such circumstances could also be found in the families of the TUMs and the CAFs.

These two cases show that Chinese extended families or big families faced the prospect of breaking up, either immediately or later, as they moved into the HDB flats. Extended families were either divided into various nuclear families and stem families, or the household itself refrained from developing into an extended family in view of the size of the flat. Therefore as the government replaced old settlements with modern, high-rise blocks, it was the beginning of change in family structure for some families. In the process of such changes people adapted themselves to a new way of living, kinship ties and communications. It is worth mentioning that during our fieldwork we noted that residents in the HDB flats always cherished their memories of past friendships and the free and open space in the kampongs, but they generally took a positive view about setting up separate households. For many people, the breakdown of the traditional extended families has given the individual more private space and reduced friction among family and relatives that inevitably comes with living under one roof.


The social space within settlement landscapes was a medium for the Singapore government to build one Singaporean community. Employing the policies of land acquisitions and public housing, former social spaces within settlements were broken down along with the mode of living of the extended families and big families. The Singapore government constructed a mixed social space comprising different social-economic groups and races with a view to fostering national consciousness through the allocation of flats, the application of racial limits, and the setting up of community organizations. From the viewpoint of the spatial constructionist, the “break” and “mix” were meant to build a whole new social space. Eventually the new “mixed” social space would have some reverse influence on people forcing them to make changes and adapt. But in the government’s view, such changes would enable the Singaporeans to construct a nation regardless of the differences in race, dialect, language or religion.

In this paper, we have demonstrated the detailed politics of spatial scale exercised by the government to break up traditional social spaces and weaken the people’s autonomy not only with regard to race but also the settlement and even the living mode of a family. We look at the residents of Kampong TM, Kampong LZ, the TUM family, and the CAF family as they moved from the kampongs to public housing in Singapore. The means and processes employed to create a new mixed social space might have impacted the local people in a variety of ways. But the final goal of the Singapore government to make use of social space to forge a nation has not changed. Although we have not discussed the local people’s responses to the government’s “break” and “mix” strategy, it should be noted that the production of social space is not solely in the hands of the government alone. The interactive cycle of the government, local people, and the social space is always ongoing.


I would like to express my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions, and to everyone who has supported me in writing this paper.

1 For the distribution of Chinese dialect groups in urban areas see Mak (1985), p. 103.

2 For the study of Pan’s village see Zeng (2003), pp. 30-59.

3 Interview with Mr. Wong (50-60 years old), 29 July 2007.

4 Interview with CLF (43 years old), 13 July 2007.

5 Other than economic and social reasons brought up in the Straits Times, Ho (2008) cited Selamat’s (1994) documentation to illustrate the religious reason for clustering in the Malay community.

6 People’s Association, (last update on 2008/12/09). Retrieved on 1 April 2009.

7 Interview with Mr. HAM (70-80 years old) on 20 July 2006.

8 Interview with Mr. HAM on 20 July 2006.

9 Interview with Mr. NCM (40-50 years old) on 19 July 2006.

10 Interview with Mr. TAM (60-70 years old) on 27 July 2007.

11 Interview with Mrs. HCF (38 years old) on 14 July 2007.

12 Interview with Mr. TUM (53 years old) on 14 July 2007.

13 Group interview with residents who formerly lived in kampong TM on 29 July 2007.

14 Group interview with residents who formerly lived in kampong LZ on 27 July 2007.

15 Here a family nucleus means a couple with their children or the grandparents with their grandchildren (Ye 1968: 439).

16 During the SIT period only families of five persons could apply for SIT flats. The HDB reduced the size of a family to four persons in Queenstown in 1961 and to three persons for a one-room flat (Straits Times 1962.06.26). After the implementation of the home ownership scheme in 1964, a couple could buy a HDB flat, and a couple could rent a flat in 1967. The adjustment of the size of a family was for matching up the government’s policy of a smaller family (Tan and Phang 1991: 19).

17 The Census of Population 2000 defined one family nucleus as one of the followings: (1) a married couple, with or without unmarried child(ren) and/or a parent/grandparent; (2) a family consisting of immediate related members, without presence of a married couple (Leow 2000b: 24).

18 An interview with Mr. TUM on 19 July 2008.

19 An interview with Mrs. CAF on 19 July 2008.


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    Interview with Mr. HAM on 20 July 2006.

  • 18

    An interview with Mr. TUM on 19 July 2008.

  • 19

    An interview with Mrs. CAF on 19 July 2008.

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