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Terror in the lift

Today, four in five Singaporeans live in HDB flats. Dwelling in a flat is second nature. But it wasn’t always this way.

Credit: Mailer_Diablo, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I found a newspaper interview from 1984 (the year I was born!) shedding light on how kampung dwellers had to learn how to live all over again, after they were resettled to high-rise flats:

Madam Oh Kim Toh used to fear the elevator.


She said in Fujian: “You stand in there, and the door closes. What if it never opens again? Or worse, the lift may jam halfway. I may suffocate.”


A little diversion: This article came out in the 1980s, during the madness that was the Speak Mandarin Campaign which swept through Singapore. The mainstream media dutifully marched in step with the Government, renaming anything that had a “dialect” origin - Nee Soon to Yishun, Peck San to Bishan, Au Kang to Hougang, and so on. Here, Hokkien - the name of the language - was renamed “Fujian”. Mercifully, the Government halted this by the latter half of the decade, but some of the changes - like the place names I mentioned above - have persisted. This is covered in my book Jalan Singapura.


The 51-year-old housewife is also unused to other things, such as the flush toilet, as she had been going to a wooden hut over the fish pond during her kampung days.


The rubbish chute in her Yishun Ring Road flat is almost a miracle to her.


“We used to keep the garbage in a bin and take it to the backyard for burning. Now my children tell me to just dump it into this chute!”


For one born into rural life, at Lorong Buangkok, and who had spent more than 30 years in a wooden house, moving to a high-rise flat was, in many ways, relearning how to live.


Madam Oh had to learn how to use a lift, the flush toilet and the rubbish chute.


“My three children taught me things like pressing the right buttons in a lift to get to the floors I want,” she said.


My supervisor, who is in his late 40s, also told me that when he first used a lift as a child, he burst into tears because he was afraid of the claustrophobic space!


Even with encouragement and help from her family, Madam Oh took several months to settle down.


“I could not sleep because the flat was very warm compared with the kampung house. I still miss the open space and cool breezes after seven years.”


But Madam Oh definitely does not miss the floods, which could rise to chest height, the mosquitoes and the inconvenience of having to draw water from a well.


“I’m free too. There are no more pigs and poultry to look after.”


Expenses, however, have increased since they now have to pay PUB bills and services and conservancy charges on their three-room flat.


“But I guess that is the price you pay for comfort,” she said.


And now it is the current generation who has no idea how living in a kampung is like.