Thursday, July 19, 2012

Silly ideas in Singapore: Bomb Shelters

Singapore’s bomb shelters, are they really necessary?
Dr Seow Onn Choong

Singapore has a very good reputation for efficiency and high standards of governance. It has come a long way moving from a third world country to first world status in a very short time. However maybe because of this rapid development some policies doesn't make sense and in my opinion turn out to be silly policies. With the new wave of thinking post election 2011, we should now take time to discuss such policies and see if they really are needed. Most of these policies were never  opened to the public for discussion. I am sure all the government think tanks would have gone through thyem but knowing how decisions are made in commiittees it may not have all the information to make a very good decision.

Bomb shelters in every home.

When one enters a new home either a landed property or a private condominium very often your host will show you a room tuck somewhere near the kitchen. This room has thick concrete slabs and a thick metal door. In it there are no windows except for a small ventilation hole. Welcome to the bomb shelter. I was told you can find such rooms in public housing too.

This contraption is very much a secret in Singapore. It is hardly publicised but when you want to build a new house your architect will tell you that this is a requirement. Nobody can tell you why there is such a policy in place. There seems to be no avenue for you to appeal.

When you dig it up you will find the reason for a bomb shelter in the SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force) website. Here are some excerpts from the web page.

Household Shelters

Description of Household Shelters

The Household Shelter (HS) in a dwelling unit is typically the store cum pantry with its walls, floor and ceiling strengthened with increased thickness. The walls are set back by specified distances from the building exterior and the entrance to the HS is installed with an SCDF-approved light protective steel door. The HS gives protection to the shelterees against weapon effects such as blast and fragments during an emergency

Under the CD Shelter Act 1997, new dwelling units (both houses and flats) are required to have household / storey shelters incorporated in the developments.

With effect from 1 May 1998, applications for planning permissions for new flats or houses submitted to or lodged with Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) are required to incorporate household or storey shelters.

Advantages of Household Shelters

The household / storey shelter has the advantage of being easily accessible to residents of the house or flat and apartment occupants when the need arises. Life during an emergency can thus be close to normalcy. In the case of a residential block of flats, it It is also economical because the void deck space otherwise occupied by a public shelter can be freed for other recreational and social uses, and maintenance cost is minimal.

Procedures for Shelter Occupation

When the need arises (eg. before the onset of a war emergency), the SCDF would increase the public education programmes to prepare the population on precautionary and protective measures. Residents will be advised to prepare the HS for occupation and adopt the appropriate procedures for shelter occupation. Upon the sounding of the "Alarm" signal from the Public Warning System (PWS)., the occupants are to move into the HS. During their stay in the HS, they are advised to tune in their TV or radio for important messages issued by the authorities. Once the "All Clear" signal is sounded, the occupants can leave the HS and resume their daily routine.

National Defence in Singapore

Singapore is a very small country surrounded by neighbours many times larger. Singapore was created through its colonial masters thus there is some sort of underlying resentment as to its existence. Furthermore the majority population of Singapore are made up of Chinese who are considered as migrants to South East Asia. From time to time when elections are being held in the neighbouring countries, inevitably inflammatory speeches are uttered. Thus there is always this fear that the neighbouring countries will invade Singapore and destroy the country when political differences arise.. National defence is taken very seriously. All male citizens must take part in national service i.e. become a soldier boy for 2 years. Then there is the regular armed forces. They are equipped with the latest gadgetry and boast some of the most advanced weaponry that money can buy. The armed forces are the active force and SCDF ( Singapore Civil Defence Force) is the passive force. SCDF organises the general public to be able to take care of the country in war times. SCDF are involved fire fighting, rescue operations, ambulance services etc.

  When in comes to National defence there is very little debate on the subject. Most people until recently do not even know how much money is spent on defence. It can amount to 20% of the country’s budget. I am not sure if there was any public debate about this bomb shelter act.

Is there a need for bomb shelters in the house?.

There are very few countries in the world that has such an Act that makes it compulsory for such a contraption at home. Israel and Switzerland are probably the only countries that make it compulsory. In the cold war of the 50’s it was popular to build nuclear shelters in USA. However nuclear shelters were fairly big underground rooms and equipped with all the necessities for a much extended stay. It was like a replica of a small house so much so the whole family can live in it for weeks.

Singapore’s bomb shelters are different. As can be seen from the SCDF write up they are very temporary in nature. They are very small because as it is the apartments in Singapore are already very small. It is also without ventilation mechanisms or any form energy supply. Thus they are meant for very short occupation.

Now come the crux of the matter.


As the guideline for the construction of the shelter imposes a necessary thickness and strength of the structure, the cost of building it is not cheap. To my knowledge the cost of such a room ranges from $25,000 (twenty five thousand) to $40,000. This may cost even much more so in a tall building as the additional weight has to be taken into account. No doubt property prices in Singapore are very high and the additional cost is not a deterrent. However as a national cost if one totals up the all the cost of each household past, present and future then it is really substantial sum of money. If Singapore built 100000 homes over the last 15 years the total cost for all the bomb shelters will be a whopping $3billion to $4 billion. That is really a lot of money to waste and can be better spend on buying equipment for our armed forces. Furthermore most properties in Singapore don’t last more than 20 years as there is great incentive to tear it down to build newer buildings. These newer developments come ever smaller as the price per square foot is ever rising due to the Singapore phenomenal of enbloc sale. What a terrible waste of resources and time. As we want to be a greener society our guardians insist on adding more rubbish.

Are this shelters really effective?.

It is effective as the SCDF states against shrapnels especially flying glass or other objects. However when a building is bombed, it usually catches fire. Thus the resident of the house or building will be trapped in a burning building. This is made worst in a high rise as the occupants may not even know the building is on fire as they cannot hear the shouts of neighbours. When they feel the heat through the walls obviously it is too late, every occupant will be roasted inside. When the heat rises there will be frantic phone calls from the occupants.

Well if our enemies know this achille’s heel then they will target to set fire to buildings instead of destroying it. SCDF and our army will then be overwhelmed by calls to rescue them. The authorities have created a false sense of security.

Other countries experience in times of war.    

Inevitably as an entrepreneur I would have run into the SCDF when I need to renovate a business premise. Singapore’s style of doing things is fairly unique. The government sets up an agency to draw up the rules and regulation. This agency then police the rules and regulations they have drawn up. However your contractors are not necessarily qualified to understand the requirements. Thus when you want to apply for permission to do things you need to appoint a QP or qualified person who is supposedly knowledgeable to all the rules and regulation. This QP will advise your contractor on how all the requirements. SCDF will not talk to you or your contractor.

Thus in one event I was so frustrated by the outcome that I had personally had go down to see the FSB( Fire safety bureau which is an unit of SCDF).  After trashing out the issue to my satisfaction I posed this question to the officer.

During the Vietnam war, Hanoi was bombed endlessly by the Americans. Did he know whether the residents of Hanoi had any bomb shelters and if not how did they survive the bombings. Well he had no clue. When I told him how the North Vietnamese survive the bombings by running into culverts and just cover the opening with a zinc sheet (which they had build near their place of work or residence) he was flabbergasted. I had emphasised to him how destructive the B52’s were during their bomb runs. There are many names to such bomb runs, the most famous being carpet bombing. Those people who live through it would not forget the name “Operation Rolling Thunder” in which more bombs were dropped in North Vietnam than the combined numbers during WW II.

So learning from the North Vietnamese, we should be building culverts and not bomb shelters.

The maid’s torture chamber.

Nobody wants to talk about this issue except if you search the expat forum you will find foreigners very amused. To make matters worse most of these rooms are used for maid quarters. Imagine sleeping in a room where there is little ventilation. If they close the door for privacy, the room becomes very stuffy. I don’t think the authorities allow aircons in these rooms. If they open the door then there is no privacy. I wonder why the governments of countries who send us maids have never brought up this issue.

I remembered the prime minister’s wife bringing this subject up once in the papers. She is an engineer by training. Nothing has come out of it.

The Swiss experience.

It seems like very soon Singapore is the only country in the world that builds bomb shelters in homes. Switzerland had one of the most elaborate self defence force and inevitably made construction of bomb shelters in homes compulsory. However times have changed for the Swiss. They have found these shelters becoming redundant. Now they are usually used only as storerooms and some even completely locked away. As usual with a historical baggage it is not easy for the Swiss to completely throw away the idea. They have allowed the locals to pay a fee. They called it a fee to pay for a space in a public bomb shelter which the government builds.

We are not so lucky in Singapore. There is no such option. However if you are building a house and can retain some structures of the old house then you may be exempted. Hmm if bombs drop from the skies how can they differenciate an old house from a newly built one?

We are an inclusive society.

Recently we have been told our society is moving towards an inclusive society. I find it a bit difficult to understand the term. I have been checking with many people and asking them what they know about the policy of bomb shelters. To my surprise literally none can come forward and tell me the rationale behind this policy. As far as I can remember there was no public discussion on this issue, thus nobody really knows why it was needed. So how can the authorities implement a policy that affects every house owner without prior consultation.

Soon we will be celebrating our 50 years of independence. Through these years Singapore has become a very developed country. We have a population over 50 years of age highly educated and with very good experience of every aspect of life. If we tap into the knowledge by harnessing the power of forum groups, the country can do very much more for our citizens without making such mistakes that can incur a lot of money. I am sure there are better ways to do things.


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  2. Good question. Should be put in the newspaper

  3. If u have a problem with this, I would suggest bringing this issue directly to the relevant authorities instead of giving any probable enemies an idea on what our archille heels are with regard to the bomb shelter. Then the govt could also educate the public on how and when to use bomb shelters in the event of crises.

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