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Singapore Heartland One Room Flat A heartland is defined as the central or most important part of an area. So what does it mean to be a Singapore heartlander? A heartland is described as “the centre of gravity of our society” in senior minister Goh Chok Tong’s terms. What does it mean to be the centre of gravity of our society, some may ask. In Singapore, many cosmopolitans use this as a base to operate in the region. This specific group can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world. On the other hand, the heartlanders, make their living within the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors. Heartlanders play a major role in maintaining our core values and our social stability. They are the core of our society. Without them, there will be no safe and stable Singapore, no Singapore system, no Singapore brand name. Heartlanders who live in a typical one room flat in Singapore are no exception. They consist of elderly who once contributed to the history of Singapore and have many stories to tell, taxi drivers, security guards and your Macdonald’s cashier. Without them, who would teach you about the past, ferry you around Singapore when you’re late, guard your schools or offices and serve you your yummy double cheeseburger? Think about it. They are like a YKK zip; a small part that makes a big difference. This publication includes statistics and information of a one room flat, interviews & reviews of with different people living in a one room flat and photographs to give you a greater understanding of what life is for them.



06 Floor Plan


08 Interview 1 Nenek Pindah 22 Interview 2 Zaleha


34 Interview 3 Family of 6 44 Interview 4 Uncle Chu & Auntie Lim


52 Writer’s Note Arella Ho

08 22

34 05

32m² 1 Room Improved

22m² 1 Room Emergency

One Room Flats



FLOOR PLAN 22m² (250 sqft) 1 Room Emergency 32m² (360 sq ft) 1 Room Improved



Nenek Pindah

01 Nenek Pindah The Chinese believe that 88 symbolizes fortune and good luck. For nenek Pindah, being 88 years old doesn’t stop her from being her happy-go-lucky self. Although senior in age, nenek is very happy, bubbly and young at heart.


Nenek Pindah


Living alone in a one room flat in Bedok South doesn’t stop her from making friends. Nenek Pindah is active in block activities such as karaoke & dancing. When interviewed she said, “saya suka menari!” which translates “I love dancing!” She even did a little twist dance from the 1960s! I was taken aback by her skill and passion for dance at her age; even I can’t dance as well! She also joins dance performance with her group of Malay ‘sisters’. Most of the time, she would gather below her block with her friends or sisters to practice their dance steps and chit chat a little. Nenek Pindah is very close to her dance partners and spends most of her social life with them. She brings joy to their lives and vice versa. Not only do they dance together but they also share recipes, talk about day-to-day events and catch up with each other. Conversations and genuine bonds like these are hard to come by and anybody who has such good friends should really treasure their ties. We should learn to be more like Nenek Pindah. Nenek Pindah enjoys eating food too. I have no idea how she managed to keep such a slim figure even though she enjoys food so much. Calories must have been lost while dancing. Although she likes food a lot, her doctor said that she shouldn’t be taking food with high cholesterol because of her high blood pressure. But that doesn’t stop her for making her own delicious home cooked meals! She is alone at home most of the time so she hardly cooks. But when she does, she calls her neighbors over to have a bonding session with her and enjoy the great the sumptuous meal. 012

Nenek Pindah

Her weekly routine includes dancing and bumping around. On Mondays, she would bump around home and on Wednesdays, she would join her friends and neighbors for a dance session. She usually stays at home to clean her things and furniture, does a lot of wiping and prays. She also mentioned that all her furniture except for her television is passed down from other people or neighbors. Her television was bought by her hard saved pocket money. With her allowance and pocket money, she can only afford day-to-day necessities like oil, coffee and food. Occasionally, she would also buy coffee and prata for her neighbors. Even though she doesn’t earn her own income or get a lot of pocket money, she still thinks about her neighbors and friends. The act of buying coffee or prata for a friend to us may seem like a daily norm but to Nenek Pindah, it is really an act of love and appreciation to her friends.


When asked about her family, nenek mentioned that she lives alone. However, she has an adopted son who visits her occasionally. Take a walk around her house and you’ll be able to find a variety of pictures of her son pasted on almost all 4 walls. Although she was never married, she always wanted company and adopted a son when she was younger. She talked about the day she brought her son to kindergarten and how cute he was during the graduation act. “Dia menangis pada hari pertama sekolah!” which translates to “He cried on the first day of primary school!” laughed Nenek Pindah. She couldn’t stop talking about the day he went to Primary school, the day he came home scarred from playing soccer with his friends and the day he grew up and found a ‘girlfriend’ at the age of 12. She also talked about how he had to shave his hair to serve the nation. “Saya rasa kesepian dan keluar dari tempat pada mulanya tetapi saya perlahan-lahan dapat digunakan untuk.” Which means “I felt lonely and out of place at first but I slowly got used to it.” Nenek Pindah teared a little while she was telling her stories of her son. She went on to talk about how she was always so excited for her weekend because she could finally meet her son again. She’s like a girlfriend waiting for her boyfriend to be dismissed from camp every weekend only that she’s his mother. No wonder he was known as “mommy’s boy” in camp! After her son came out of camp, he started to work and soon found himself a girlfriend, got married and started his own family. Even though her only kin doesn’t live with her anymore, she is glad that he has


Nenek Pindah

his own family with kids. She jokingly said that she enjoys living alone because her son would not be home to “irritate” her. “Saya tidak berasa kesunyian kerana saya mempunyai rakan-rakan dan jiran-jiran saya untuk menemani saya” which translates to “I don’t feel lonely because I have my friends and neighbors to accompany me” says Nenek Pindah. Although her adopted son might not be there to live with her, she still has her family and neighbors at Bedok South! Nenek pindah also spoke about her neighbors helping her when she’s sick. Whenever she falls ill, her children and various neighbors from different units in her block would personally come down to her house to ask her if she has eaten or taken her medications. “It is only my luck that there are people willing to help me” she also adds on. Ask any neighbor in the block about nenek pindah who lives in her block at Bedok South and everyone will reply with the same answer “She’s always smiling and still strong at 88! She dances well too” She is so well known in her neighborhood! When I was at the welfare organization below her block, I saw many photos of her pasted around the office. There were images of her dance performances with the senior citizens and she is apparently one of the best dancers around Bedok South! I was touched by the bond the neighbors at the one room flats have. Everyone knew the exact names of their neighbors and there wasn’t any kind of segregation. The people living at that particular block in Bedok were all willing to help the elderly, the needy or the sick. They were like a happy family living under one roof helping each other when in need and having fun when they could. Nenek pindah was always there to help cheer her neighbors up.

“It is


luck people that


willing tohelp








One A thing A person A single unit An individual



Mdm Zaleha

02 Mdm Zaleha Strong willed and kind hearted; Mdm Zaleha is a single mother who looks after three children. Without a job and proper income how does this tenacious lady bring up her children all by herself ?


“Cooking for my

children makes me happy”


Mdm Zaleha


Mdm Zaleha has a daughter and two sons age 16, 14 and 17 respectively. Her children looks after her well and are currently studying in various secondary schools. While interviewing them, I could see from their eye contact and occasional hugs that they really love their mother a lot. They kept laughing and conversing in Malay, which I hardly understood, but from their tone of voice and expressions, I could tell that they really love Mdm Zaleha. 48 years old, Mdm Zaleha used to work in Macdonald’s as a cashier to earn just enough to feed her three kids. “I liked working at Macdonald’s because serving customers made me happy and I could earn money to buy things for my children”. For many of us working at Macdonald’s might just be an ordinary and boring job, but to Mdm Zaleha, it was her main source of income and it brought joy to her life. Now, think about it, you could be making a difference in the lady who serves you your double cheeseburger at the counter. However, because of her weak bones, back problems and thyroid, it hindered her health and she had no choice but to forgo her job and monthly income. “I wish I wasn’t sick. I could do so much more for my children”, said Mdm Zaleha. For many of us, being sick means going to the doctor, eating a bowl of porridge, missing school or work. But to Mdm Zaleha, being sick mean not having income and money to support her children.


Mdm Zaleha


A housewife that does the cooking and laundry for her children, Mdm Zaleha talks about how she loves preparing home cooked breakfast and dinner because they are healthy & much more nutritious, much more friendly on money and most importantly, made with love. “Cooking for my children makes me happy” says Mdm Zaleha. She does whatever she can for her children despite her situation. Although she does not have any income for the family, she still makes sure that her children gets proper education and clothes and is well fed. Thankfully, the social workers that work below their block are helpful enough to provide them with food occasionally. Her family also gets a monthly allowance of $500, which is donated by voluntary welfare organizations. But think about it, is $500 really enough to support a family of four which includes three children who are still studying and a medically unwell mother? I highly doubt so. Maybe it is just enough to get by her days here in Singapore. During the interview, she mentions about the pros and cons of living in a one room flat. She doesn’t like the environment because a 22m² house is a tad too small for 4 people and her kids have to resort to sleeping on the ground. Moreover, the environment is not suitable for her health and the stuffiness causes difficulty in her breathing a lot of times. Once, there was not enough fresh air, she had to walk out of the block with her very weak legs just to get a breath of fresh air. Her children are also affected by


the space limitation because they do not have their own study corner or proper tables and chairs to facilitate in a smooth environment for studying. Moreover, when they have projects and they need to lay things out, they do not have sufficient space to do work. Group projects are also a problem when it comes to learning. Her children can never call their friends over for discussions because there isn’t enough space and is not conducive for studying. She also mentioned that there was a period of time when there was a nest directly outside the kitchen and flies couldn’t stop coming into their house to harass them. It was a big problem because the flies were invading their house, which isn’t very big, and they had no choice to leave their house just to escape from the flies. There is always a black and white to everything we do in life. Likewise, there are also pros in living in a one room flat. Mdm Zaleha mentioned that her neighbors in her block at Bedok South are very friendly and the entire block practically knows one another. When I casually asked her about Nenek Pindah, she mentioned to me that she had just given plates to her out of gratitude because she had too many. This goes to show how caring and friendly they are to each other. Although they might be living 6 levels away from each other, they still know each other. Also, given Mdm Zaleha’s medical state, her neighbors look after her in time of need. An example would be the time she felt faint alone at home and her neighbor from the opposite unit, Mdm Poh

Mdm Zaleha

helped to treat and look after her. All in all, her neighbors are very supportive and caring. The younger families or children would always help the elderly if they need any help in carrying heavy things or walking around. “Pastor Wong from the Lutheran church next door is a very good man. He delivers a sack of rice right to my doorstep every month. Although he is Christian, he still helps me, a Muslim woman”, Mdm Zaleha mentions this during her interview. According to Mdm Zaleha, Pastor Wong helps the people around the block regardless of religion and makes conversations with her to get to know her better. People in the entire block of one room flats are very helpful. There isn’t racial and religious segregation of any sort; they are like a happy big family under one roof. Mdm Zaleha really enjoys the company and helpfulness of her neighbors around the estate.

“Pastor Wong delivers


rice doorstep



to my

month” every


/ 1


A one room flat is about 1/500 of a football field.


Family of 6

Family of 6 Laughter and jokes shared across the room, they are always smiling. A family of six living under one roof; how does a father feed his children and wife?


Family of 6


A grandmother, an uncle, a father, a mother and two lovely daughters share a 22m2 space in a one roomflat. Mr J, the malay father who prefers to be left anonymous, works as a security guard to bring up his family of 5. He has been safeguarding our country and working as a security guard for many years now. “ I won’t say I love my job but it is how I need to do to bring my two daughters up”, said Mr J. A responsible husband and father, Mr J works in the day and return home at night to his wife and kids. I love coming home to see my two daughters running towards me with open arms” laughed Mr J. He loves plays and teaches his daughters whenever possible. Mdm Marciano, the Filipino mother, is a housewife who looks after her mother and two daughters at home while her husband goes out to work every day. Every morning she would bring her 9 years old daughter, Diana to her primary school nearby and travel a few stops away to bring her 6 years old daughter Tin tin 038

Family of 6 to her kindergarten. Although they might not be born with a silver spoon, Mdm Marciano insists on her children in doing well in school. Everyday, she would guide her two daughters in doing their homework and teaching them the right things. While her daughters are in school, she prepares lunch for her mother and dinner for her family and does the laundry. Doing her free time, she would jump from houses to houses to talk to the other aunties in the block. “I really enjoy the company of my friends here. Singapore is a much safer and sociable place”, said Mdm Marciano. She seemed to love Singapore a lot because racial discrimination is not very strong here and all the Filipinos here are surprisingly more bonded as compared to the Filipinos in the Philippines itself.

grandchildren grow up and for her daughter and son to do well. “The culture here is very different to the Philippines”, said Mrs Marciano. She talks about how different the housing architecture are, how Singapore is so fast paced as compared to the Philippines and the many different races we have here. Mr Marciano, the uncle who is a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital currently lives with the family in a one room flat because he is not Singaporean and cannot afford to buy a house on his own. “I like Singapore a lot because people here accept me more as compared to The Philippines”, said the nurse. The aspiring

Mrs Marciano, the grandmother isn’t very strong now. Hence, she came to Singapore from The Philippines to meet her daughter and son here. She hopes to see her


nurse also mentioned that he would love to live permanently in Singapore because options are so much better as compared to the Philippines. Although living standard here in Singapore might be too high for him, he still likes the culture and wide job opportunities. It’s funny how Singaporeans in Singapore complain so much about not having a better paid job or having a good environment to live in and yet foreigners commend Singapore about being good at such areas. Singaporeans ought to take a back step and be thankful for what they have. I’m not implying that we have good job opportunities but I just think that we should stop complaining and be appreciative of what we have.


Family of 6 The two daughters, Diana and Tin Tin are such lovely girls. During the interview, they got comfortable with me within seconds and they made funny faces and poses during the shoot. I could see that they loved each other very much from the way they talk to their actions. Tin Tin would always cup her hands to her mouth and whisper to Diana. The moment after which, they would giggle and laugh away. Such a cute sight to see! Although they are of Malay and Filipino descents, they learn Chinese because Mr J said that Chinese is important in living in Singapore. Surprisingly, both the girls enjoy learning Chinese a lot. During their birthdays or Hari Raya, they would have a mini parties near the lift area where they would invite all their neighbors to join them in their home cooked food, sing some songs and play some games. Although they might not be very wealthy, they still host parties and celebrate with their neighbors. Your wouldn’t find this common in a bigger HDB, apartments, condominiums or private houses simply because people are not as open ‘close’ both literally and figuratively. I’m not saying that you can’t find such mini parties elsewhere but they are just not as common or home orientated like theirs. I observed one thing during my visit to their house, walls. There aren’t a lot of walls or almost no walls within a house itself and that’s what set it apart from other houses. The reason why this Malay-Filipino family is so bonded could be brought about from the walls. Having no walls forces everyone in the family to interact with one another and this strengthens bonds. It could actually be a plus point for living in a one room flat with no walls.











Private Housing

3 room HDB flats

1 & 2 room HDB flats

4 room or bigger HDB flats


Bukit Merah Kallang


Ang Mo Kio Toa Payoh Bedok Geylang Queenstown Outram Marine Parade Jurong West

10 planning areas one


two & room



Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim


Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim One male and one female age 72 and 67 respectively live together in a small house. They may seem like a cute old couple bickering and laughing away but they are strictly platonic friends, or at least that’s what they say they are.


Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim

“We’re just very good ” friends



Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim When I first visited their house, I in sensitively asked Auntie Lim “So how did you and Uncle Chu meet?” without thinking twice about whether or not they are a couple or just friends. Auntie Lim shouted instantly without hesitation in Chinese, “What husband? I have no husband! He passed away a few years ago.” Auntie Lim retired almost 10 years and has been widowed with no children since her husband passed away a few years ago. She met Uncle Chu in a welfare association community for senior citizens after her husband’s unfortunate event and became good friends with him. They would play games with the other senior citizens in the association and eat and laugh about things. “We’re just very good friends” or what she claims to be, says Auntie Lim. Uncle Chu on the other hand, has been single all his life. He used to be a comfort taxi driver. He proudly showed me his certificate presented to him 3 decades ago as he told me about his day-to-day job. He didn’t have any family to support since his parents passed away so he drove in a cab to earn more than enough money for himself in the past. Talking to people in the taxi is probably one of his favorite pastimes, just like any other taxi driver. Next time you hop on a cab, remember to engage in a conversation with the taxi driver. They really do have a lot of stories to

tell. Sadly, when his health started to deteriorate, he had to quit his proud occupation of a taxi driver and visit the welfare association for senior citizens. It might not be sad after all since he met Auntie Lim there and could finally get a proper break from life’s needs. Currently, both Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim but nylon wire lines to make extra cash. They don’t necessarily need to earn extra cash but since they are bored most of the time at home, they gather together with a few of their friends to cut wires and sell it for extra cash. Their neighbors from next door and Uncle Lee who works below their block would occasionally visit their house and gather together for some chit chat session. Old but young at heart people, they can spend the entire day talking in their mini apartment just like how teenage girls do it in their slumber parties. It’s amazing how they can talk so much during their free time. They talk as if words can never run out. Indeed, words can never ever run out. Occasionally, they would also gather together below their block at the senior citizens corner to play games carried out my various groups are organizations from Singapore. Auntie Lim said that she doesn’t really enjoy playing physical games with the other senior citizens below their block because it is very tiring for her leg but she still does it anyway because they get so much fun from it. Upon seeing the cross placed right in the middle of their house, I asked them if they were Christians. Auntie Lim said she was but Uncle Chu said otherwise. Even though Uncle Chu isn’t Christian, he is open to Christianity and doesn’t mind Auntie Lim putting the cross in the middle of the house. “I might not believe is any particular god or gods but I don’t mind her (Auntie Lim) putting the cross in my house because I believe it doesn’t bring evil but only peace” said Uncle Chu. The people living in the one room flats in that block are quite open to religion and everyone helps one another regardless or racial and religion differences and I think that that is a commendable point.



Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim Both Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim live on their monthly allowance of $250 each, which is donated by voluntary welfare organizations. With that money, they are able to lead their normal lives. They spend roughly $50 a week and get donated meals from various organizations most of the time so $250 is quite enough for their monthly expenditure. “So do you two have any intention of getting together?” I jokingly asked. “We’re already so old. What would people think if we got together? It doesn’t work for old people like us” Auntie Lim replied and Uncle Chu laughed away. I teased Uncle Chu for laughing and the both of them started bickering. This ‘couple’ Uncle Chu and Auntie Lim are really quite a young at heart and happy people. They make their friends; neighbors and even myself laugh so much we couldn’t even contain ourselves.


Writer’s Note

Writer’s Note Arella Ho Singapore Heartland is the centre of gravity of our society, the core of our society and dear to Singapore. This does not exclude the minority people living in a one room flat. Some of the elderly that were interviewed in this publication has been through war years and have great stories to tell. Some of which were your security guard safeguarding your campus or work place, some were your taxi uncle that drove you around Singapore and some were your Macdonald’s auntie serving you your burger. The people who were interviewed were very ordinary people. Nothing special. But they are special because they every individual have their own character and story to tell. In addition, no matter what difficulties they might have faced or is facing now, they never succumb to giving up on life. I hope that you too were touched by their stories and would like to make a difference in their lives. From today onwards, you could make a change in someone else’s life. I sincerely wish that this publication gave you a more in depth idea of the people living in a one room flat and how it looks like and for you, whoever you are who is reading this now to have a greater understanding of what life is like for them. Photography and words of this publication by Arella Ho



centre heartland is the

ty core gravi of

socie the of our

society of our

dear Singapore







One Room Flat  
One Room Flat  

One Room Flat is a publication about real life stories from residents living in a 22 or 32 square metre flat in Singapore.