No football in void decks: Singapore’s irresistible urge to police empty spaces
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No football in void decks: Singapore’s irresistible urge to police empty spaces

THE Singaporean government’s recent attempt to discourage youth from playing football in open spaces under public high-rise housing estates by installing metal railings has drawn heavy criticism. (This empty space is usually called a “void deck” in Singapore.)

The void deck, according to Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, is a space “where residents can gather to meet friends or where our children can run around, whether rain or shine.” It serves as a shared space that has been “instrumental in developing a sense of community.” To the state, however, football is an exception. You can run around as long as you don’t kick a ball (parkour is acceptable too; in fact, it seems like the railings are there to encourage it).

Just shy of imposing a ban, the state has come up with increasingly innovative (or some might say ludicrous) ways to prevent youth from playing football in void decks. Whether it is placing spikes on the wall or setting up metal railings, the state takes an interventionist approach towards resolving neighbourly disputes that favours the restriction of spontaneous activity.

SEE ALSO: Singapore government installs anti-football barriers in public spaces

Indeed, the MP for Tanjor Pagar GRC Chia Shi-Lu explained that activities should only be performed in designated places. “We would like to encourage our residents who wish to play ball games to use the proper amenities which are available nearby.” Football must be played in football courts.

Empty spaces are thus policed by the state and assigned fixed purposes, in much the same way the government adopts single-use zoning in urban planning. It may be modern and efficient, but is it always ideal?

Architect professor Jason Pomeroy argues that by assigning specific activities to public spaces and restricting others (such as by banning running, smoking, ball games and speaking loudly), the state has turned void decks into sterile spaces which end up being underutilised.

What then was the activity that was assigned to the void deck of Block 181? As explained by its MP, its purpose is to serve as “the residents’ short-cut route to the MRT station.” Accordingly, other activities, especially disruptive ones, must be restricted, even if doing so means turning the void deck into an underused empty space.

Although this creates a stark contradiction between the state’s insistence on Singapore’s land scarcity and its refusal to permit spontaneous uses of empty spaces, it is not one the state will willingly admit to. After all, the state meticulously plans and controls every aspect of the island-city’s life. From the economy to language, culture and even mannerisms, the state seeks to impose comprehensive controls. No Singlish, uphold Asian (Confucian) values, no spitting, smile more. And now, no football.

This does not mean that the concerns raised by residents are invalid. Indeed, noise, dirt, property damage and human injury are important concerns. However, they do not explain the state’s automatic preference for the most restrictive solution when less restrictive ones exist. As other residents pointed out, the railings prevented the use of the void deck for other less intrusive purposes like playing badminton as well. Given the amount of space in the void deck, there must have surely been a way to cordon off an area for youth to play football without hitting passers-by.

This is not too far off from Associate Professor Donald Low’s observation of an increasing reliance on bans. As an economist at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Low observes that relying on outright bans are problematic because, among other reasons, they drive undesirable activities completely out of existence even when they are harmless at low levels. In this instance, the attempt to ban football by putting up metal railings has not only prevented youth who can play the sport responsibly from doing so, it has also restricted other harmless forms of activities such as badminton.

The problems with such an approach extend even further. For one, the state’s interventionist approach encourages Singaporeans to defer to the state whenever conflicts arise. In this instance, an opportunity to come to a common understanding with football-loving youth (or seek their parents’ cooperation in doing so) has been lost. Rather than impress upon them the importance of using common spaces responsibly and at appropriate hours, the state has only succeeded in conveying the message that accommodation and tolerance are merely buzzwords with no relevance when the state can be relied upon to intervene.

In addition, over-reliance on outright bans discourages creative problem-solving. Setting up railings in order to stop youth from playing football has attracted plenty of ridicule, much of which was directed at the superficial and simplistic nature of the government’s approach. In contrast to the state’s lack of creativity, several netizens have suggested alternatives such as encouraging the kids to use lightweight plastic balls or setting up tables and benches instead.

Perhaps the most significant problem with the state’s zoning proclivities (the tendency to assign specific, usually singular, uses to empty spaces) is that it segregates citizens. Void decks are especially important public spaces, not only because they are ubiquitous, but also because they create rare opportunities for social contact between neighbours who would otherwise be virtually unaware of each other’s existence.

High-rise flats, unlike kampongs (rural villages), are designed to house as many people as possible in mid-air, not facilitate social contact. The closest one gets to meaningful social contact with neighbours is in random encounters along common corridors and in void decks. Encouraging more, not less, contact should be the aim. Indeed, many Singaporeans have expressed their disappointment at the loss of a valuable opportunity for youth to develop a sense of community, especially among different races.

There is, however, a missing element in the responses of Singaporeans to the news — and that is shock. Sadly, we have become so accustomed to the state’s heavy-handed approach towards regulating public spaces that many responses expressed jadedness. Just as football may only be played in football courts, politics is restricted to political parties. There is little empty space in Singapore, whether physical or mental, because the state’s intense fear of social disorder (justified or not) creates in it an irresistible urge to bring all things under control. In the paranoid state’s mind, ambiguity cannot be tolerated, even if it means an own-goal.