Toa Payoh represents one of the great national endeavours of its era. As the first self-sufficient satellite town entirely planned and constructed by the Housing Development Board (HDB), it set the ground for public housing in the 1960s. The ‘big swamp’ – Toa in Hokkien/ Teochew meaning ‘big’ and Payoh in Malay (‘paya’) for swamp – held the seed of ambition for Singapore’s rapid urbanisation. It represented a burst of visionary aspiration to be modern, long before the rise of the ‘Asian Dragons’, and much of this modernity was more than simply economic growth.
The early days of urban design laid the groundwork of cultural and social architecture for our first generation of flat dwellers, eradicating unsanitary living conditions of squatter settlements. Mirroring the industrial revolution of the nation, Toa Payoh was carved out to include factory sites within the town. Cottage industries manufacturing soy bean curd and rattan evolved to attracting multinational companies in transistors, toys and consumer electronics including Philips – which was a marker for me on the public bus, signalling that I was nearing school.
The New Town was envisioned as one that had everything. With plans for 500 persons per acre, flats and factories alone were not adequate. Significant space was given to building the community, thoughtfully designed to create pockets of human interaction through a variety of amenities and recreational services such as wet markets, hawker stalls, town parks and places of worship. As teens after school, we would save up for the occasional meal of Hokkien mee at the Lorong 1 market, on wooden tables held steady with a folded piece of cardboard under its legs. Better known to others, Lorong 4 is home to some of the oldest shops – ‘Lee Fun Nam Kee’ whose origins are said to date back to 1968 as a small chicken rice hawker stall, and ‘Bugs Bunny’ barber shop which has been serving many of our ‘bros’ since 1971.
Playgrounds were a common gathering place for family picnics, with children running their hands along the terrazzo mosaic of the dragon and racing across the colourful steel spine rings. The design aesthetics for our playgrounds was first inspired by a British sculptor and later evolved to feature Asian symbols such as the oriental dragon and concepts of our Singapore culture. Our enduring fondness for local playgrounds began in the 1970s, weaving together disparate threads of our social fabric.
As a testbed town, Toa Payoh bore many features commonly associated today with our neighbourhoods – NTUC Welcome (the forerunner of NTUC Fairprice), the Residents Association (which preceded the Residents’ Committee). It was the first town to deploy the neighbourhood police post system. It was also home to the first mosque under the Mosque Building Fund and, in 1985, the first MRT station.
Yet it retained glimpses of the old days – games of local checkers outside the mamak shop at Blk 179, and embracing broader inclusivity in its community. The Singapore Association for the Blind was one of the early establishments at Toa Payoh Rise, with an industrial workshop for the visually impaired to learn carpentry and basket making. White canes were part of the landscape and Safety First Campaigns were held to raise awareness among motorists in the area. Tactile paving was not always complete, asI remember watching my father step out of our car to guide a blind man towards the zebra crossing.
In 1973, a year after Queen Elizabeth II visited the new town’s then tallest (19-storey) and prominently designed Y-shaped block, Toa Payoh became the face of Singapore for a major sporting competition, the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (SEAP Games). As the Games Village, Toa Payoh Stadium, Sports Hall, and Swimming Complex were used as competition venues and the Toa Payoh Library as the secretariat building. Four point blocks were home to athletes and officials from seven countries, standing today as testament to our nation’s sporting pride. Less known to us as children huddled by the pool to learn water survival skills at swimming classes, the atmosphere that once echoed with rallying cheers of home support for the athletes was now attuned to the sound of the instructor’s commands and the occasional buzz of the lifeguard’s whistle.
I recall when my family’s block underwent renewal works – new tiles, fresh coats of paint, maximising the spaces at our void deck and larger signage boards for Town Council activities. Our dome arch at the lift landing was white walled and the stone benches removed, exuding a clean, modern design – much to my neighbour’s distress. His basis for “needing the bench back” was not merely sentimental but because the benched area had become a space for chance encounters – the grey haired uncles with their kopi and an occasional game of checkers, with children told to “call ah gong” before dashing off to play catch at the playground.
With his persistence and persuasion, a blue metal bench was later installed at the best possible gap between the arch and the letterboxes, but it never convened the same audience as, with time, the grey hairs had turned white. It dawned upon me that public architecture could extend common spaces, but needed the power of human-centred design to foster interaction, bonding and engagement in the community – the things that bring and hold people together.
Our flats today skyrocket at forty-storeys, maximising the number of residences while optimising the use of space and designing for privacy and exclusivity. Some of us hardly know our neighbours even though we take the same routes to childcare centres, trains, and supermarkets. We lament that our heartlands have lost the character and charm of the old days. Yet we know that when our basic needs are met, people innately yearn for deeper connections, values like that of a kampung – purpose in the community, sustainable interactions with neighbours as an extended family, and consciousness of the environment around us. If proximity was our lever, would we see new ways to tackle our social concerns and find common ground?
It is imperative that as we look back on our journey and continue to modernise our infrastructure towards a decentralised city, our pursuit must build both the hardware and our heartware. The collective expression of our shared values has always begun in our corridors.
Having read Social Sciences locally, Livia has written essays but not quite a page in a book. If you ask her, she’d prefer to draw. In her earlier days, she has exhibited for ‘Campaign City’, in partnership with the National Library Board on reinterpreting campaign posters that shaped our social landscape; ‘Asian Mosaics’ with Singapore International Photography Festival, and ‘心天地 Our Heartlands’, with Urban Sketchers x Creamier. She believes in our culture, community, and what makes us feel as one. Aside from her day job, Livia is the founder of Refresh Flowers SG, the first dedicated ground-up initiative serving to repurpose wedding flowers for patients in hospices. A day in her life is part strategy, part flowers, part being a dog momma, and part youth work.