(Re)constructing the Nation? Representations of Public Housing in School Geography Textbooks, pp. 10 of 14

“[P]lanners of urban settlements make deliberate decisions to place certain land uses in certain areas . . . An example of the importance of accessibility  [in urban planning] is the way in which housing may have easy access to industrial jobs near them, since they do not have to travel far nor pay a lot in travelling costs. In Singapore, flatted factories in Bukit Merah are located beside-rise public housing” (CPDD Understanding Geography 3, 1998, pp. 50-51).

As Chua (1997) noted, the material landscape of public housing testifies to the efficacy of the state and contributes significantly to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s legitimacy to govern. We extend this argument by pointing out that the planned public housing landscape is an ideological construct of which its representations rely upon urban planning as an instrument of power to be encoded, naturalised and legitimised in geography school textbooks. Geography students were tasked to take the lens of an urban planner in ‘decision-making exercises’. For instance, students are tasked to examine why Queenstown was “not as well-planned as Toa Payoh” (CDIS Understanding Geography 1 Workbook, 1982, p. 98). This practice of urban planning promotes the need to perceive space as a tabula rasa in order to make difficult decisions and to establish a new spatial (and social) order. Accepting urban planning as the way to manage national space is deeply rooted in the national consciousness and is arguably achieved partly through education.

What is omitted through these representations of public housing, however, are the forgotten landscapes of informal housing, including the rural villages and city slums, as well as the obliteration of the politics of resettlement. These exclusions could potentially create a post-independence nation with a historical amnesia of its vulnerabilities, and a weakening of its national identity.  

Changing Aspirations and Changing Representations

In the 2000s, representations of public housing landscapes were depicted in school geography textbooks under the theme of ‘Development’. Two textbooks published during this era were analysed – Interactive Geography Elective (SNP Panpac, 2004) and Our World A Closer Look (Haines, 2003). Rostow’s 5-stage trajectory of development is used in the text to exemplify how a high level of development can be indicated by high standards of living. Subsequently, images of HDB estates in Simei (see SNP Panpac, 2004, p. 244) and Toa Payoh (see Haines et al., 2003, p. 279) are used to illustrate how Singaporean urbanites enjoy a higher standard of living as compared to rural dwellers. It is also claimed that HBD “now aims to further enhance the standard of living in Singapore by upgrading older estates and building better quality apartments” so as to meet the “expectations of its people” (Haines et al., 2003, p. 284). In these accounts, public housing representations are mobilised to trace the evolving role of the HDB and to generate dominant consensus among geography students that high-rise public housing is the continued and preferred way of living in contemporary Singapore.

Geography school textbooks capture the changing focus of the nation’s housing challenges and the renewed mission of HDB. In recent years, discourses of “inclusive housing” and the “inclusive city” have found its way into the representations of public housing in school geography textbooks. All About Geography Secondary Two: Urban Living written by Goh et al. (2015) reiterates HDB’s renewed aims to meet rising aspirations of a newly affluent society. In their account, “inclusive housing” has the characteristics of affordability and “ensuring a quality living environment” (ibid., 2015, p. 96). It should have “3-Generation (3G) facilities” for all ages and the use of “[d]istinctive physical features and landmarks” to build a sense of place and belonging of a place. What emerges from these public housing representations is a projection of an aspirational suburban form that is highly liveable and imbued with coded practices of “community” lived in and through these spaces. These are evident attempts by the state to influence Singaporeans’ expectations of public housing estates and how they remain desirable despite the rise of private condominium estates.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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