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  • Writer's pictureDonna Lu

DISPLACING DOMESTICITY: What is the psychological legacy of Singapore’s housing policy?

APRIL 2018 a dissertation submitted in fulfillment of the requirements of Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Fine Arts - McNally School of Fine Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore



In a recent blog post, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong cautioned Singaporeans against buying older Housing Development Board (HDB) flats in hopes of that they would be eligible for the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). He clarified that the vast majority of these estates would be returned to the State once the homeowners’ lease expired.

This has sparked online discussions over the longstanding debate regarding whether or not Singaporeans are ‘owners’ or ‘lessees’. The problem extends beyond semantics. Singapore’s homeownership rate is one of the highest internationally, and its success is cited as one of the cornerstones of the People’s Action Party’s sustained political success. Since the HDB’s inception in 1960, residents accomodated in public housing has skyrocketed from 8.8 percent to 80.1 percent in 2015, with 90.8 percent of the public owning their homes. These statistics are symbolic proof of government’s “ability to fulfil its promise to improve the living conditions of the entire nation”. Furthermore, homeownership in Singapore has come to represent a stake in the country’s affairs. In his policymaking, the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew believed that in the sense of ownership and pride that came from homeownership would extend to the nation’s future. This would create a stable community from a population that lacked common history.4

The core research question of this dissertation is: what is the psychoanalytic legacy of Singapore’s housing policy? I argue that while the policies are indeed efficient and have contributed greatly to the nation’s economic and political stability, they have limited the country’s ability to develop as a society. Rather than giving its citizens roots, Singapore’s housing policy has instead prescribed a life-plan to its residents and fostered a sense of apathy, which I regard as uncanny in the context of home. The nation is widely hailed as an economic success, but rarely are her culture or people discussed beyond statistics of performative success. I believe that this sense of apathy is symptomatic of Singapore’s status as an administrative state, rather than as a nation.

In Chapter 1, I review the successes, non-successes, psychological effects and by-products of Singapore’s housing policies, which are outlined in two economic papers: “Housing Policies in Singapore” by Sock Yong Phang and Matthias Helble, and “Housing and Superannuation” by David Reisman. In its analysis, this essay refers to Sigmund Freud’s texts - “An Outline of Psychoanalysis”, “Inhibitions, Signs and Anxiety”, and “The Uncanny”. Chapter 2 will interpret a film by local filmmaker Eric Khoo as a reflection of local apathy, a play written by Jean Tay in terms of how the characters come to reconcile their desires with the institution of public housing, and the works of Dawn Ng and Rachel Whiteread as a subversion of the everyday uncanny. Chapter 3 will conclude by interpreting three works in my own practice as a form of understanding the negotiations between id and superego.


Singapore’s public housing and urban planning is greatly influenced by Le Corbusier’s concept of the modern house. Borrowing from his ideas of zoning, standardisation and efficiency, the similarities are undeniable when viewed alongside one another. The architect famously stated: “The house is a machine for living in.” Singapore’s housing policies are engineered in very much the same spirit. By looking at these policies through the lens of psychoanalysis, we may come to a better understanding of the apparatus of the housing machine.

1.1 Psychic Apparatus

In psychoanalytic theory, the apparatus of the mind may be divided into three parts: the id, superego and ego. The id is driven by the pleasure-principle to seek immediate gratification and avoid pain, without considering the demands of reality. It consists of the the bodily demands and unconscious instincts present in all human beings: the love instinct and the death instinct; to bind together and to unbind connections. Conversely, the superego reflects the socio-cultural influences that have been imparted to the individual by their parents and/or other role model figures. It demands that the individual act in a socially acceptable manner, and is often at odds with the id’s baser desires. Finally, the ego receives both internal and external stimuli and controls deliberate movement in response to them. While the ego pursues pleasure like the id, it is tempered by its need for self-preservation to do so in realistic ways that provide long-term gratification. Being able to control access to both consciousness and physical action, it is responsible for balancing the needs of the id with the demands of the super-ego and reality.

The ego decides whether they should defer the fulfillment of the id’s instincts to a more opportune time, or if the id’s desires are too dangerous to be fulfilled. If the latter should be the case, the ego responds to this internal threat in the same way that it may do so to an external one - flight. The ego removes itself from the perceived danger, and represses it by holding the impulse in the unconscious part of the mind. The repressed desire may be denied completely or displaced onto a substitute goal. Ideally, the substitute provided allows the energy of the id’s instincts to be channelled into socially acceptable actions.

However, there are less ideal situations where these coping mechanisms do not function as they should. When a repressed individual is confronted by something that resonates with the repressed impulse, the experience is known as the uncanny. In his analysis of the uncanny, Freud quotes Jentsch: “one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton”. If the cathectic energy of the repressed impulse is not redirected to a suitable substitute, it becomes converted into anxiety. This is because the energy of the impulse is displaced onto the death instinct, which is internalised, and becomes self-destructive. If an inadequate substitute is provided, it may no longer be recognised as gratification and the impulse to achieve this goal becomes a compulsion, rather than a pursuit of pleasure. This may transform them into uncanny figures, behaving as though they are automatons. In other cases, the ego may become inhibited in its functions. This may be a deliberate decision to restrict its functions to avoid coming into conflict with the id - they are incapable, rather than unwilling to fulfil the id’s desires; or the ego may be unable to carry out its functions as a result of using too much of its energy repressing the id’s impulses. An extremely inhibited ego may become vulnerable to the demands of the superego, and become disproportionately influenced by it. The inhibited ego, finding a lack of pleasure in living and behaving only in accordance with the demands of the superego, may then become an uncanny figure in its mechanical behaviour.

1.2 Mechanisms of Housing Policies

In 1966, the Singapore parliament passed the Land Acquisition Act - which gave the government the power to expropriate land, with a fixed compensation rate. While the compensation has been pegged to full market value since 2007, the state was nonetheless able to acquire a vast proportion of land at a much lower cost in the intervening years, and owned approximately 90% of total land by 2005. Holding such a large proportion of the land meant that the state removed most private sector alternatives for housing. By expropriating the land, the government was able to break up and repress most ethnic enclaves, secret societies and all other established communities. In 1968, a new policy was passed to allow citizens to withdraw from their savings in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to finance the purchase of HDB housing. With a high percentage of employee’s funds - 20% in 2016 - being tied down in compulsory savings, most citizens are unable to afford private sector housing and therefore reside in HDB housing. The HDB is able to dictate guidelines of what is acceptable on its premises, and the prevalence of the public housing scheme means that these guidelines become societal norms. The HDB may therefore be perceived as the superego in the apparatus of Singapore’s housing policy, with the individual and his desires being the ego and id respectively.

The demands of the superego may be observed in the HDB’s eligibility and priority schemes for new housing flats. The ideal family is married with children, and those who do not conform are largely neglected in the public housing scheme. For an individual to purchase a flat before they are 35 years of age, they must be (1) Orphaned, (2) Widowed or divorced with children, or (3) Married or engaged. In other words, unless the individual is unfortunate enough to lose their parents, marriage or a former marriage is necessary in order to purchase a flat before they are 35 years old. The HDB’s priority schemes also reveal the superego’s demand for larger families. Under the Parenthood Priority Scheme, up to 30% of new flats and 50% of existing flats are allocated to these applicants if they have children, while the Third Child Priority Scheme allocates another 5% to families with more than three children. New flats are ready for inhabitants approximately three years from the submission of a purchase application, by which time couples have to have had their marriage solemnised. This prescribes a timeline to individuals who wish to move in with their partners: for example, a couple that desires to move in together by 27 needs to commit themselves to each other at 24. Additionally, there is a greater pressure on graduates to get married, as in order to apply, the couple’s gross monthly income ceiling must be lower than $12,000 for a four-room flat, or $6,000 for a three-room flat in a non-mature estate. Couples that have good job prospects are therefore pressured to marry early before their careers take off, so as to be eligible for government housing. While far less controversial than the Graduate Mother Scheme of 198417 - which granted graduate mothers priority in better schools for their third child, encouraging graduates to have more children - the result is similar in pressuring graduates to marry younger and have children. The superego demands that the ego conforms to this timeline and heavily restricts their ability to do otherwise. The HDB-CPF framework further inhibits the individual’s ability to fulfill their personal desires by lowering their purchasing power; while giving the individual the allowance to purchase government housing, in accordance with the national agenda of a home-owning society. The prescribed life-plan may therefore be interpreted as an inhibited substitute for the individual’s own plans for the future, which does not provide pleasure. Individuals, such as single parents, homosexual couples and unmarried individuals under 35, who do not conform to these conventions are fully excluded from the eligibility schemes outside of their roles as children.

Individuals who are eligible for housing as family nucleus or as a single over 35 but are financially unable to purchase a house, and have no other housing options (such as residing with extended family) are instead covered under the Public Rental Scheme. The concept of renting is in conflict with the HDB’s agenda of home-ownership. Therefore, the policies make it difficult for individuals to rent, and are aimed to push them to purchase their own houses instead. Individuals are not eligible for rental units if they have sold their flat within 2.5 years. This is to encourage them to buy a new home with the sale profits instead of renting. However, this means that if the individual is trying to live off of his HDB flat, they will be in a state of limbo - unable to rent until the 2.5 years have passed, but also unable to buy a flat and live comfortably. The percentage of rental units in HDB housing is as low as 5.7%, and only citizens and permanent residents on incomes lower than $1,500 a month are eligible for the rental scheme. Rental rates increase with household income, in order to make rental unattractive to those who are around the $1,500 mark. The Tenants’ Priority Scheme gives renting households’ ballots a chance to be accepted earlier, but being on low income means that they might not be able to return a housing loan. All of this makes renting a difficult option for residents and puts individuals capable of buying property in a difficult situation where they are asset rich but cash poor. In situations where the individual rents, they are faced by the stigma of renting as it is associated with poverty, which is viewed as a moral failing as the superego demands that the individual self-sufficient and is responsible for their own economic situation. Some are unable to live with their roommates - the Joint Singles Scheme requires that an individual rent the unit with another listed occupier - and would rather live as one of the homeless despite having a residency listed. The superego favours homeownership, self-sufficiency - as seen in the compulsory savings of the CPF - and competitivity. Those in the lowest social classes deviate from these demands. The homelessness, cash poverty and the stigma against rental may be seen as punishment of that deviation. Given that the individual is restricted severely by the superego’s tangible laws, they are unable to reconcile their personal desires and are prone to the anxiety of being unable to live up to the superego’s demands. In recent years, more rental flat units have been made available, and there has been more news coverage of the local homeless. This is the first step in easing the stigma of rental, however the reality of their situation is still a difficult struggle.

1.3 Symptoms of Apathy

The prescribed ideal life-plan dictated by the superego demands that the individual be married and housed in their twenties, and does not accommodate rental for lower income households that have an income above $1,500. Having known this stress, parents as result push their children to do well in schools - and therefore careers - from a young age, so they will be financially stable in the future. This can be seen in the sheer amount of their income that parents pour into their children’s education. A 2017 HSBC survey found that Singaporeans spend amount $100,000 on their children’s education, coming in 3rd globally, while a 2015 Nexus Film survey found that 40% of parents sent their children to preschool tuition. Young children therefore repress their dreams at a young age, being taught to focus instead on classes and grades. They are unable to fulfil their own desires and are instead focused on the substitute goal of exams. In most cases, this goal is so reduced and inhibited from the original impulse that fulfilling it is no longer recognised as gratification, and the urge to succeed at it instead becomes a compulsion. Indeed, the severity of this focus cannot be overstated: in 2016, the total number of teen suicides was the highest in 15 years. Teens who reached out the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) helpline cited study stress as one of main reasons for their suicidal urges. In adults, their inhibitions may result in melancholia, going through the motions rather than truly living life. The result is an uncanny population of automatons living in a mass-produced landscape.

This resounding effects of melancholia may be seen in the individual’s apathy from others. In April 2017, an individual posted a story on Facebook, detailing an experience with public apathy. His father had been involved in a car crash and witnesses of the accident refused to testify, even going so far as to deny having been at the scene despite having been recounting the event moments before. Only one in the case of many, others came forward in response to tell their own experiences with public apathy in the face of injury. The problem is severe enough that the government has implemented an ongoing campaign since 199728 to combat apathy and intolerance in the public. To this date, the Singapore Kindness Movement is still in place, with advertisements in place at train stations reminding the public to be polite and kind to one another in person and online. The current campaign, Ben and Bang, illustrates how being inconsiderate can lead to unhappy outcomes for the person perpetrating it, in order to remind the public to check their behaviour. In 2006, the government implemented a programme called ‘4 Million Smiles’, an online collage of smiling faces to welcome international delegates and visitors. The public was invited to add their own photographs too it, with the possibility of winning material prizes in a lucky draw. The commonality in all of these campaigns is that instead of propagating kindness, it promotes a front of kindness and courtesy for personal gain. In Ben and Bang, individuals are shamed into polite behaviour, by re-enacting possible public judgement. 4 Million Smiles was put into place for an the annual IMF and World Bank meeting that was covered by international media, in order to show Singapore as a kind and welcoming place. That the government intervened in the first place, and that the Singapore Kindness Movement is still necessary in 2018, says much about the state of our society. Furthermore, the carrot and stick method of getting Singaporeans to be kind rings false. Clearly, there is an island-wide neurosis if we must be shamed and bribed into kindness.

The apathy the individual experiences is extended towards national politics. The sense of nationalism and pride that the late Minister Mentor Lee had hoped to foster through homeownership does not seem to have blossomed as intended, despite the high percentage of homeowners. During the recession that followed the Asian Financial Crisis in the early 2000s, the then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong found it necessary to challenge Singaporeans regarding their apathy towards the nation in the 2002 National Day Rally. When questioned about whether they would fight for their nation, a number of ‘fair-weather Singaporeans’ stated that they would leave. This is a sentiment that does not seem to have faded with time. In 2015, an online survey conducted by Ipsos and SSI showed that 42% of Singaporeans surveyed would emigrate if given the chance. While the population may not necessarily do as they indicated, it is evident that a majority of Singaporeans do not have the sense of patriotism that the HDB set out to establish. 2015 was the nation’s Jubilee year of independence, and in the spirit of celebration, announced that 7 August 2015 would be declared a public holiday. However, within 48 hours of the announcement, Skyscanner found that the flight bookings for 7 August skyrocketed by 738 percent. When The New Paper conducted an online survey regarding the phenomenon, 62 percent of respondents felt “they were not duty-bound to [stay for the Jubilee Weekend]”. This may be because operating outside of the superego’s parameters conjure a sense of anxiety. So much of the ego’s energy is spent compulsively fulfilling the symptoms of the HDB’s life-plan. The opportunity to emigrating and holidaying abroad may be perceived as an escapist fantasy from the superego’s restrictions on the ego where the id’s desires may be fulfilled.


“One leaves home only to find him/herself desiring to return home only to find himself at home. One returns home only to find himself desiring to leave home only to find himself at home.”

- E.M.F. Seng, hom-e-scape

2.1 Blueprint: Living with Neurosis

Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997) provides a reflection of and commentary against the apathetic culture that has pervaded the housing flat. The film weaves together four concurrent narratives occurring in the same block: a nameless and silent man indulges in alcohol and cigarettes, before committing suicide and haunting the block; San San, a middle-aged woman lives with the voice of her deceased mother constantly criticising how she lives her life; A strict conformist, Meng, disciplines and regulates his younger siblings, Trixie and Tee, in their parents’ absence; Ah Gu and his mainland Chinese bride Lili live in marital dissatisfaction, both feeling that the other has cheated them. Each character is living with a form of neurosis, their individual desires being in conflict with the superego’s demands.

Meng may be interpreted as a severely inhibited ego conforming strictly to the superego’s desires. Throughout the film, he is heavily fixated on his siblings’ education, sexuality and their avoidance of vices such as alcohol, drugs and other material goods. Meng goes so far as to quote government campaigns such as the Singapore Kindness Movement, chiding his siblings to be considerate and build ‘a gracious society’. He goes on to chide Trixie to be pure and virginal until marriage, echoing the housing policy’s intolerance of deviance from the prescribed life-plan. Their conversation is one-sided, with the siblings echoing what they believe he wants to hear, and complaining about how straight-laced he is in private with one another. However, his suppressed desires make themselves known in scenes where he is alone. He caresses a toothbrush, presumably his sister’s, with his thumb, an echo of the camera’s gaze sliding up drawing the blanket over her bare legs in the previous scene. In another scene, he confiscates a condom from his sister and lectures her harshly about the dangers of lust and sexually transmitted diseases for it, before locking himself in the toilet. There, he opens the condom and pulling it over his thumb, stretches and rubs it with his right hand so the lubricant is visible on his fingers. His incestuest desires for his sister become evident when he finds out she is seeing someone, and drunkenly calls out her name at the neighbourhood playground. Being inhibited and repressed, he is unable to pursue pleasure and is only able to compulsively fulfill and echo the superego’s demands. Meng is oppressed by the very dogma he exhorts. Aside from the above mentioned scenes where he shaken by the revelation of his sister’s relationship, Meng’s speaking lines are all iterations of the state and superego’s ideals.

Conversely, San San has almost no speaking lines - the only time she speaks is to make pleasantries with an acquaintance over tea. Instead, it is her mother who speaks, constantly criticising her in Cantonese. Being middle-aged and single, San San is very much the deviant who has failed to live up to the idealised life-plan of a family nucleus. In a scene at the coffee shop, a group of middle-aged men mock her for her looks and make it clear she is seen as unattractive as a partner despite being financially able. Where Meng chides his siblings to conform, San San’s mother harangues her for having failed to live up to those standards, while comparing her to a more successful ex-classmate. San San’s mother may be perceived as San San’s internalised destructive instinct. There is no sign that she has never been given a suitable substitute to her repressed desires, or in fact any sign as to what her original repressed desires are. All of her physical actions seem to be in response to this internal anxiety: her mother shames her for being dirty, lazy and ugly while she cleans the house as if being able to scrub off the shame; her mother tells her she should have left her to die like her birth parents had while she cuts vegetables. Her life has become centred around this internalised self-destructive voice. It should therefore come as no surprise that within the first few minutes of the film, San San attempts to kill herself. The way in which she decided to do so was especially striking. In the middle of opening her front door, she stopped - resigned, as though it was too much to go on living one more day - and put her things neatly along the corridor, and then put her leg over the ledge and heaved herself up. In the same way, her decision not to jump was also uncanny - a moment of eye contact with a fellow resident, and she put her leg down and went on with her day.

Her destructive instinct is such that she behaves as though she is already dead, and is simply going through the motions of living.

The use of eye-contact in the film is another aspect that seems to signal towards apathy and self-policing. Despite not interacting with each other, the scenes in which characters do not speak to one another seem to be those filled with the most meaningful exchanges. Shortly before San San’s attempted suicide, she and Meng occupy the same playground - a communal neighbourhood area - but neither speak. After making eye contact, he turns away so that his back is to her, and the two are separated visually in the following shot by the playground. I suggest that San San’s inhibited character resonated with Meng’s own repressed instincts, and the uncanny feeling is what caused him to turn away. Similarly, the nameless man’s eye contact with the San San may have caused a similar reaction. After seeing her suicide attempt, the nameless man kills himself. The repressed destructive instinct in him likely resonated with San San’s own internalised destructive instinct. In other words, the inhibitions in each of these characters causes them to pull away from each other, amplifying their apathy towards others.

2.2 Spare Parts: Unconscious Desires

Jean Tay’s play Boom (2007) provides an update from her 1997 play Plunge. A humorous, yet poignant piece, it weaves two narratives: that of the elderly Mother and her real estate agent son, Boon, who tries to convince her to sell their HDB flat and move, and Jeremiah, the civil servant who tries to convince the Corpse to give him his name so they can move him to a crematorium. The play offers resistance against and reconciliation with the superego’s demands for progress. It depicts the civil service as a workplace with individuals rather than as a monolithic government, and therefore with the possibility of change.

Boon’s conflict with his mother stems from his desire for a new, better home and resentment against his father for leaving them colouring his memories of the home. His internal desire to destroy his connections with his father is translated into the desire to move away and have the place demolished. Boom negotiates his mother’s love instinct to unite herself, her memories of the past and physical mementos, against the knowledge that they have no choice but to move when the papers are signed. By the end of the film, he has come to terms with his parents’ relationship, being willing to put back together his mother’s mementos after she broke them in a fit of anger, but he is also responsible for chopping down the fig tree that is symbolic of his parents’ marriage and his father’s subsequent abandonment. The chopping sound mirrors titular sound ‘Boom boom boom. ... The sound of construction. The sound of progress.’

In Jeremiah’s conversation with the Corpse, the latter says of the cremation: ‘No fire! No burning! Die one time already! No more!’ This is mirrored in his own recounting of his mother’s cremation: ‘That’s when the screaming started. ... I don’t know if it was coming from the coffin or somewhere inside my head but it didn’t stop.’ The relocation of the

death is seen as a highly traumatic event, which is reflective of the relocation of the living mother.

Mother and the Corpse of her husband have mirrored lines and desires. In the Corpse’s monologue, he says ‘Wah ai zai si.’ - he desires to return to the earth, and unify himself with it, making himself and his memories part of the geographical landscape. Similarly, in the Mother’s monologue, she says ‘Wah ai deng chu.’ after expressing her desire to become a bird and vandalise and destroy the cars of the rich in her new estate. Her desires to return home - in other words, to unify herself, memories and physical landscape - have been converted into destructive impulses against those she sees as movers of Progress. In a bittersweet ending, she is left with the corpse of the fig tree and is forced to move.

However, the Mother and the Corpse of her husband are reconciled in a dream, where the inhibitions of the ego and superego are not present to restrict the id’s desires. The refrain of ‘Where else would I/you be?’ in this dream sequence reveals both parties’ nostalgia in the face of the trauma of constant modernisation. Boon’s act of mending his mother’s broken mementos and taking them with him also suggests that this desire to return home may have been thwarted, but once the id’s destructive impulses have been expelled, one may put together the pieces and go on living.


 for the full version of this paper, please contact me via email or social media. 

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