Murals in HDB Estates

Painted on the walls and pillars of some blocks in Senior Librarian Dahlia’s housing estate are several murals that make her smile when she walks past them. While there isn’t a theme they are random designs in various styles murals on the walls of Housing & Development Board (HDB) estates add much-needed colour and whimsy to our daily lives. Here, Dahlia explores the murals in some of Singapore’s neighbourhoods.

When they were first built, HDB blocks all around Singapore were uniformly painted white. In 1973, Dr Augustine Tan, then Minster of Parliament for Whampoa, suggested that newer HDB estates could be made more attractive by painting them with colours other than white and featuring “art decorations like stone murals on each corner faces of each block”.¹

This initiative took off in the 1980s. Murals can be found in several HDB estates across the island. Subjects range from the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac in Jurong East, graphic designs inspired by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in Bedok Reservoir², oriental carpet designs in Woodlands³, and other attractive designs in Bishan, Bo Wen, Hong Kah, Eunos, Ulu Pandan⁴, Ang Mo Kio⁵, Yishun, Bishan, Serangoon, Tampines and Simei, just to name a few. The Mondrian-inspired designs in Bedok Reservoir estate, for example, were the creation of 10 clerks-of-works and their architect who wanted to brighten up the “dull, concrete void decks”.⁶ These promote a sense of belonging to a new town, to differentiate it from other neighbourhoods and estates and create an identity,⁷ and add a touch of colour to the surroundings.

Other popular mural designs include flowers and trees, which enliven the place and encourage positive messages. Some might recall a mural of a tree with spreading branches, much like a tree of life, at Block 5 Marine Terrace. Children, birds and even a cat were perched on its branches. A bright orange sun shone and green vegetation was found at the base of the tree. Written below the tree’s branches was “Together ours is a beautiful world”. Sadly, the mural is no longer there.

A single red hibiscus adorns the façade of a block of flats in Bedok South. Photo credit: Jimmy Yap

In Bedok South’s Bunga Merah Residents’ Committee (RC), a single red hibiscus features prominently on the façades of at least six blocks of flats. The flower theme ties in with other RCs in Bedok South such as Bedok Bougainvillea, Bedok Orchid, Bedok Frangipani, Bedok Sunflower and Bedok Ixora. However, only the blocks of Bedok Bunga Merah have a flower painted on them. I did find it a little odd that Bedok Bunga Merah was not named Bedok Hibiscus or Bedok Bunga Raya, the Malay name for hibiscus. My curiosity got the better of me and with a little research I found out that there is already a Bedok Hibiscus neighbourhood RC in Bedok North! I wonder who first chose the name Bedok Hibiscus in Bedok North. Some folks might be confused if they are headed towards Bedok Hibiscus (Bedok North) and come across the hibiscus mural on the blocks of Bedok Bunga Merah neighbourhood (Bedok South) along the way!

Singapore’s landscape, history and heritage are also popular subjects for these murals. For instance, across the combined walls of Blocks 109 and 110 in Pasir Ris is a painting of Cavenagh Bridge, which features a notice stating that cattle and horses are not allowed on the bridge. This old notice is a piece of Singapore’s history and still exists today opposite the Asian Civilisations Museum.

On the walls of Block 54 Marine Terrace in Marine Parade estate is a vignette of life along the Singapore river in the 1960s. The mural presents buildings that lined the Singapore River, along with bumboats and even a cat. Atop the work are the words “Singapore River 1960s”.

Mural of the Singapore river in the 1960s. Photo credit: Dahlia Shamsuddin

These murals might evoke a sense of nostalgia in older residents living in these two estates. For younger folks, these paintings could be an opportunity to see what Singapore looked like in the past and find out more about its history and heritage. Though I wonder if these murals of old Singapore could in fact present an idealised notion of Singapore’s past.

In 1986, HDB announced that the new Simei estate “[would have] a touch of Chinese history”. According to an article in The Straits Times, Simei means “four beauties” in Mandarin, hence, the four main roads in the estate were to be named Xishi, Guifei, Zhaojun and Diaochan after the four famous beauties in Chinese history. While murals of the four beauties were painted on the walls of selected void decks,⁸ the idea to name the four main roads after the four beauties was eventually dropped. Instead, the roads in the estate were simply named “Simei Streets 1 to 6” and “Simei Road”. The murals of the four beauties also no longer exist, following the repainting of the blocks. Hence, not many people remember the story of how Simei estate got its name.

Beauty, beauty on the wall…,” Straits Times, 11 March 1988, 49. (From NewspaperSG)

I can’t help but think that Simei estate should have perhaps been named after one of the many villages in Changi – such as Telok Paku, Padang Terbakar, Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh – that disappeared due to the construction of Changi Airport. It would have been a way to remember and retain the place history of these villages and its people.

Murals of colourful parrots on the lift shaft of Block 728 in Ang Mo Kio. Photo credit: Jimmy Yap

In Ang Mo Kio, you can find vibrant murals painted by artists on three lift shafts on the ground floor of Block 728, a four-storey block with shops and other commercial businesses. Each lift shaft has its own theme. While colourful parrots adorn three sides of one lift shaft, two young women in a colourful garden enhance an otherwise drab second lift shaft. The third lift shaft depicts what I think is an apt snapshot of life in Singapore: a man wearing yellow boots and a chef’s hat eats a watermelon, one man makes teh tarik and another in an “I [heart] AMK” T-shirt holds a glass of beer, while a man opposite him tucks into a bowl of noodles. These murals, dated 2017, include the signatures of the artists.

Snapshots of life decorate the lift shaft of Block 728 in Ang Mo Kio. Photo credit: Jimmy Yap
Showcasing art via QR code at Pasir Ris. Photo credit: Phyllis Wee

Over in Pasir Ris, the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) is showcasing art from its vast collection to residents in an intriguing fashion. Instead of featuring artwork on walls, residents are invited to scan QR codes painted on the walls of the void deck to view the paintings and read about the artists. I wonder if the residents are as curious as I am to scan these QR codes and visit NGS to see these paintings in person.

These murals are not meant to be permanent and will probably be gone once the blocks are repainted. Changing the designs of murals allow the walls to be refreshed and ready for the next burst of artistic inspiration. Space, like land in Singapore, is at a premium and always evolving. There may be fewer walls on which art can flourish as some of these void decks may be rented out to organisations or businesses. These murals do not just liven up our living spaces but are also starting points to our country’s history, heritage and art. If you would like to find out more about the evolution of public murals around Singapore beyond our housing estates, check out the video below:

Dahlia Shamsuddin is a senior librarian with the Resource Discovery & Management division, National Library Board, where she catalogues legal deposit, gift and donor materials. She is the author of “The Forgotten Murals of Paya Lebar Airport”, published in BiblioAsia, Jul–Sep 2021, Vol. 17, no. 2.

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[1]Brighten up HDB blocks with murals says MP,” Straits Times, 30 March 1973, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

[2] Agnes Wee, “Murals, murals on the wall…Straits Times, 22 February 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

[3]Wall ‘carpets’ in Woodlands,” Straits Times, 18 April 1989, 23. (From NewspaperSG)

[4]Adding colour,” Straits Times, 16 November 1988, 26. (From NewspaperSG)

[5]Colours take over,” Straits Times, 13 May 1980, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

[6] Agnes Wee, “Murals, murals on the wall…Straits Times, 22 February 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

[7]Chinese zodiac signs for 12 Jurong blocks,” Straits Times, 12 June 1981, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

[8]Simei flats ready this year,” Straits Times, 1 February 1986, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

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Singapore’s premier resource centre for materials on or about Singapore and the region.