Bukit Timah Community Speaks on HDB’s Attempt to De-Atas the Neighbourhood
Top image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

Bukit Timah is a neighbourhood that has it all: Good-Class Bungalows, ‘elite’ schools, and heritage sites like the Rail Corridor. The general island-wide perception is that if you live in Bukit Timah… yeah, you’re probably rich.

Some people think this might change in the next few decades. The HDB recently announced plans to build between 15,000 and 20,000 new homes on the grounds of the former Turf City but has yet to decide on the proportion of public and private housing.

Experts commented that while this move signifies an attempt to improve social cohesion and socioeconomic diversity, it might have limited effectiveness. Public housing may not result in class mixing, especially because it would likely be Prime flats appealing to the upper middle class.

But what do people on the ground think? RICE speaks to people who’ve lived, worked, or studied in Bukit Timah to find out if they think it’s truly a ‘rich estate’—and if new developments will make an impact.

“I stayed in Hillview for a while, and the only available supermarket within walking distance was a Cold Storage. Also, this was during the Covid period, so I had to order food delivery. It didn’t even matter if the delivery fee was high or not because the food itself was expensive.

There are many micro-indicators (transport, accessibility, amenities, communities living there) that affect how rich an area is. Changing one micro-indicator by building HDB flats isn’t going to change everything. Bukit Timah is still an area that largely houses expats and is pretty inaccessible unless you have a car.”

— Allie, 24

HDB in Bukit Timah
Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

“When I was living in Bukit Timah with my family, it was sort of crazy to feel poor even if we were staying in a condo apartment because every time I went out, I saw huge bungalows and rows of semi-detached housing around me. In fact, whenever I told anyone that I was staying in Bukit Timah, they’d look at me differently, like, ‘Wow, Bukit Timah?’ They probably thought we were rich (we were well-to-do but not exactly rich either…).

My first thought about having HDB flats built in that area would be, holy crap, the imposter syndrome would be through the roof! But having more flats there could make people pause before making assumptions.

I’m a bit cautious to say that it will make the place more diverse. I think that a significant portion of the new residents will likely be the children of those already living in Bukit Timah, but honestly, more houses are good in general, so I don’t have many complaints.”

— Julian, 23

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

“I studied in an ‘elite’ school in Bukit Timah. My principal told us more than once, ‘My hope is that when you grow up, one of you [students] will get rich, and buy one of the houses in the area so that you can give it to the school to expand it.’ What a thing to say to a bunch of 13- to 16-year-olds.

I think that the reputation of Bukit Timah as a ‘rich people estate’ is already entrenched. Building a couple of HDB flats isn’t going to change it.”

— Yvonne, 25

“I went to school there, and Bukit Timah does seem like a more well-off area that I don’t think my family could afford to live in. The housing in the area is low-rise condos and landed properties.

I think more public housing could help change that impression, assuming that the housing is as affordable as it gets these days. But it’s hard to see how it will fit in with the area since the whole vibe is a sprawl of classy condos and a higher square footage per person. My impression is also that the schools in the area are more of the private kind, ie. richer kids go there.

I think food options around my school just aren’t that good, like the number of dollar signs involved at the restaurants along Bukit Timah Road is just not student-friendly. It’s not worth paying for when we have cheap hawker food and canteen food, so I’d rather just head home.”

— Amanda, 23

“I stay in Hillview, which is also regarded as quite a rich area, though it’s a bit further from Bukit Timah.

People definitely assume I’m well-to-do because of where I live, which I think is quite a fair assumption because the area has a very noticeable lack of HDBs and is mostly landed and condos. I’m fine with people assuming that about me, but I think it’s the assumption that comes along with that (that you’re stuck up) that makes me a bit more conscious. I don’t really tell people where I stay because of this.

From an outsider’s perspective—since I don’t exactly stay in the heart of Bukit Timah—I think building more HDB flats might help to shed its “rich people area” image. But at the same time, we have to consider that there might still be segregation among those who stay in landed properties and HDB flats. For example, how will landed property residents react to HDB residents? This might very well cement the ‘rich people area’ image more.”

— Joanne, 23

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