Tom White

Freelance Visual Journalist, Educator and Artist
    Rhetorical Territories by Tom White 
Rhetorical Territories
Location: Singapore
Nationality: British
Biography: I grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in the north of England and am currently based in Singapore. My work has been published and exhibited internationally and between 2015-2022 I taught Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at Yale-NUS... MORE
Public Story
Rhetorical Territories
Copyright Tom White 2023
Date of Work Aug 2015 - Ongoing
Updated Sep 2017
Topics Community, Documentary, Fine Art, Photography, Photojournalism, Public Housing, Street

This project was shot during 2015 as part of my residency with the Exactly Foundation in Singapore.

Rhetorical Territories[1]

In the heart of the city, an apartment complex stands tall. Calm above the street, nebulous connections trace paths through the space.

"No chicken rice today, only pork rice." The hawker grins at me. Sold out again. Not surprising. This chicken rice stall is famous. The pork is good too.

On the fifth floor void deck a solitary figure strolls about, two small dogs chasing each other at his heels. A man several floors above spots me gazing up and nods at me with a grin.

Along the corridor we get asked if have we just moved in. People know an unfamiliar face. "It's like an oasis here, separated from the street." a resident tells me. "We like it like that."

At the funeral held in the art space, Roy, who works the chicken rice stall comes up to me. "Many photos tonight?" he asks. "A few" I reply. He gestures with a nod at the gathering around us. "My relatives." He states.

Public housing is one of Singapore's success stories, and often held up as a shining example of how the city-state has modernised and provided for its citizens in the 50 years since independence. Regularly quoted statistics show that over 80% of Singapore's residents live in HDB (Housing Development Board) Public Housing and 90% of these are home owners.

In the words of the official narrative and as stated in the National Heritage Board publication Who's your neighbour?, the HBD block is "a high-rise village of people of different origins, traditions and mother tongues who have learned to live together in harmony."[2]

Unlike the vernacular spaces of other cities, Singapore's high density urban environment exhibits a high degree of planning and this includes spaces specifically designed to foster community engagement and interaction.  Common corridors, void decks, local amenities and open, mixed use spaces are all carefully integrated into urban planning design.

Though generally regarded as a highly successful program, Singapore's public housing has to a certain degree been thrust upon the population. The well-documented shift from overcrowded shophouse ghettos and kampung villages to towering HDB blocks did not happen entirely without resistance. Perhaps recognising the effects of this displacement in part gave rise to the invention of the "˜Kampung Spirit' narrative that emerged as part of the government campaigns promoting HDB living.

While understandably and deservedly proud of HDB public housing, I cannot help but wonder what these spaces would become were they allowed to grow organically. 

Aspects of the unplanned, the personal and the private all infringe upon public spaces and their designated use.  The open space for meeting your neighbour becomes instead one where privacy is sought. The common corridor becomes divided as ownership of the space in a radius outside one's front door is individually claimed.

The proposition that 'Bad housing produces good street life'[3] then begs the question, 'What does good housing produce?'

In the density of urban living, a peculiar aspect of which is the closed private space of the individual home - just one unit among many, all superficially the same - an inevitable tension between the public and the private arises with the potential to disrupt the carefully constructed conditions for community ideals.

Here, in the eventual ruins of progress an archaeology of the future will unearth, an acceptance of the terms of social housing for the sake of pragmatism is coupled with a fiercely guarded privacy that defies the coercive Kampung Spirit narrative perpetuated in government literature.

The non-space of the void deck - it's very name conjuring up the dichotomy of an empty space both welcoming and hostile "“ is but temporarily occupied.  Many residents of Waterloo Centre bypass the fifth floor void deck and the commercial spaces below on their way to and from their homes on the floors above. A "˜buffer' against the outside world was how one resident described it to me.

Yet the outside world is closing in. The city continues to grow.  "I used to be able to see the sea" said another resident, talking about a time long past. Now the surrounding buildings offer up a view of concrete, steel and glass.

 On the ground floor, the most bustling of the public spaces in the Waterloo Centre, a territorialisation of public spaces for private use takes place producing an ever-shifting ownership within, and sometimes clashing against, the boundaries of public authority and the desires of other occupants.  On the floors above, the void deck, in lifts and along common corridors, brief encounters form networks while the designated public space remains frequently empty, a temporal void, rarely filled, mostly waiting.

"The social significance of public space has to be understood and given the necessary emphasis if their roles as settings and catalysts for social interaction are to be maximised. The patterns of use of the public places in HDB estates illustrate that different places accommodate the various routines of residents. These spaces, therefore, assume varying social significance for the residents, depending on the latter's lifestyles and routines."[4]

A funeral turns private grief into public spectacle.  A community appears, gathers, mourns and then disappears.  The place becomes once again a non-place, "the palimpsest on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten".[5]

In Waterloo Centre, an urban oasis, the dynamics of the public-private continuum give rise to what may be an example of Foucault's heterotopia[6]; a space that contains the potential for the affirmation of difference and multiple uses.

Interestingly, it is in the possibilities of the public space so essential to the planning success of the HDB public housing program that the organic emergence of a community, a liberty and the expression of a community spirit may happen, perhaps despite rather than because of the implementation of any particular policy.


[1] The title references Vincent Descombes' "rhetorical country".  This is a place in which a person feels at home due to the fact they are able to be understood and to understand others based upon a shared rhetoric; a cultural commonality

[2] "Who's Your Neighbour?" "“ a guide published in 2014 by the National Heritage Board in collaboration with the National Integration Council and The Housing Development Board opens with this description of a HDB community.

accessed 02/11/2015

[3] Public Space: Design, Use and Management. Edited by Beng-Huat Chua & Norman Edwards, National University of Singapore. Centre for Advanced Studies. (Singapore University Press 1992) p4

[4] The Social Significance of Public Spaces in Public Housing Estates by Ooi Giok Ling & Thomas T.W.Tan in Public Space: Design, Use and Management. Edited by Beng-Huat Chua & Norman Edwards, National University of Singapore. Centre for Advanced Studies. (Singapore University Press 1992) p80

[5] See Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity by Marc Augé, translated by John Howe. (Verso, London 1992) p79

[6] See Michel Foucault "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias" published by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984, under the title of "Des Espace Autres". Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec. accessed 02/11/2015

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