A high-rise apartment in SingaporeThe recent revelations that, over the past 3 months, 6 foreign domestic workers have fallen to their deaths in the line of duty should surprise no one. After all, it isn’t the first such incident in this land of high-rise, high-density living. What is new, however, is the Ministry of Manpower’s attempt to address the issue. New measures to educate such foreign workers on safe practices and high-rise safety have been put in place, from training courses and programmes to pamphlets and newsletters featuring safety messages and tips.

One has to wonder, however, if the authorities are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, education will be of some help to domestic workers, but they aren’t the only ones falling out of high-rise windows! Housewives and other family members doing household chores such as cleaning windows and hanging laundry have also fallen prey to such tragic mishaps. And have any of you ever seen air-conditioning contractors at work in a residence several floors up? Just watching them precariously balanced on the service ledge, or sometimes on the air-con unit itself, is a harrowing experience for me.

Furthermore, freak accidents involving over-enthusiastic children or bouncing teenagers have also contributed to this fatal statistic. If we also include crimes of passion and rash, spur-of-the-moment suicidal impulses, the numbers become quite alarming. And the common factor in all these cases? The fact that a nearby window allowed convenient, full-body access to the great outdoors…

Some of you might already see where we’re going with this. But before we dive into that, let’s explore the history of how we have come to this. When HDB (then known as SIT) first started building multi-storey residences, the focus was on providing cheap, affordable housing so that citizens could move out of the burgeoning slums and traditional kampongs. With the first few such units less than 6 storeys in height, domestic safety took a back seat to the primary focus. For a fledgling authority, new to high-rise construction, it would have been easy to miss the regulations required for high-rise safety.

As the years passed, as SIT became HDB, and as the population grew alongside the SIngapore economy, the developments had to go higher and higher to keep up. But the priority remained the same, perhaps even more urgent with success. Safety features would be expensive and would require extra resources across the board, especially back in the day, when building expertise and technology were still immature.

Today, we live with the legacy of those past decisions. However, times have changed, and technology has advanced leaps and bounds. The HDB units of today are a far cry, both in design and functionality, from those in the 60s and 70s. Of course, they tend to be smaller too, but that’s a topic for another day. Safety features and technology in buildings have matured to the point that it is feasible, cost-wise, to implement them. In fact, the cost to implement these features would not be more than what is spent on aesthetics and beautification today, but the value of these features is immense.

Addressing this issue will require a concerted effort from all ministries, not just the Ministry of Manpower. Both the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Development Board must act in concert as well. Regulations and policies regarding window dimensions, safety features and proper fittings must be put in place for all developers to follow. Guidelines and best practice recommendations can also help to ensure safer high-rise living. Only when backed up by the threat of fines, suspensions and lawsuits will there be real change in safety. And only then will MOM’s education policy reap a much better result.

Stay tuned as we explore alternative solutions and designs that will address this issue in concrete and direct manner. There isn’t a single solution that can satisfy every taste while also addressing all saftely concerns, but by implementing a combination of them, we can ensure that high-rise living is not costly in terms of human lives.

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