I OFTEN FIND MYSELF fascinated by the homes that populate our country. For things that cover a large percentage of our homeland, most of us don’t give much attention to them. I cannot claim to know what these buildings mean, besides being physical homes in which a lot of us reside in, but I hope to try to come to a semblance of what they might represent. Unfortunately, or not depending on your interest, I will not be discussing more practical issues, like the price of these apartments or where they are best located. This will be a study in what their presence might denote to you or me as natives of our island.

For me, HDB flats are quiet monuments. 

A monument is a structure specifically built to commemorate events, incidents or persons that hold great importance to certain social groups. Monuments then become part of the society, as it exists as both a reminder of the past and a thing that persists for the future. 

Unwittingly built for necessity to escape the muddled, murky and bursting cacophony that was the 1960’s housing situation, HDB flats still stand to represent what Singapore is for most Singaporeans; a home. They are different from our other monuments. The Merlion, for example, was created in 1964 by Alec Fraser-Brunner, a British ichthyologist, for the Singapore Tourism Board to be used as a symbol to represent our island city-state. We have no other premier monuments but one can argue that the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort also serves to identify and commemorate Singapore, in its own way. 

Our HDB flats, however, are different. They serve as a more organic and natural tribute to what Singapore might be. They are discreet memorials with no plaques, no red velvet ropes. They have no entry fees, no queues. Anyone can step into a lift lobby and understand it as both a gallery and a communal space. Our flats, these still tributes, they stand with no tourists; no visitors except those whom they already serve. They are homes and monuments that forever try to reach up to some unattainable height – one most of us do not notice. 

I used to think that they were oppressive. Their angularity, their sharp points that made me feel like I lived in stacked boxes. Lifts were always dirty and all I walked past were closed gates and grills. Nowadays, I look up a little more to see how the sky frames the flats. I am inclined to say that most of the time, the difference between good and bad is just based on perspective. 

I appreciate the lines they tote, the angles at which they turn and shape themselves. When the sun hits at an angle, they are decked phenomenally in pastels. I lived my life among these giants under their void decks with my family, my friends and have come to attach my feelings of belonging here. I am sure you have also walked under their arches and seen the greenery we lovingly adorn them with.

Maybe I yearn for them to mean more, but for now I am at peace with what they already offer, and what we have made them out to be. Yes, I understand that these quiet monuments are part of our mundane, everyday lives. These are things we see, forget and take for granted. 

That’s why I began to take photos of flats. At the start, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Perhaps it was a way for me to come to terms with what I thought these blocks held. Slowly, I managed to capture something from them, some of the sense they contained. I wanted the HDBs to not look like our HDBs so we could contemplate them in a different way. Whether I succeeded or not, dear reader, you be the judge. 

However, I appeal to you to look up once in a while to marvel at the shapes that line our skies if you have the time. Move away from thinking of HDBs as just places where we live; begin thinking of them beyond what we normally allow ourselves to. Our physical spaces often mean more to us than what we believe. 

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