One night, my boyfriend and I wanted to explore the new cluster of BTO flats in his neighbourhood. We went up to the 35th storey to check out the unblocked view of the densely populated town.
As the common area outside the lifts was pretty small, the only space with a view was either the rubbish chute area or the staircase. We went through the door leading to the staircase down to the lower levels, marvelling at how the new flats were so much cleaner than the older ones in the area.
“Omg.” I stopped suddenly in my tracks. “Is that a condom??”
“It’s used,” my boyfriend commented, and I moved closer to examine whether there were any contents, before he stopped me from being gross.
It’s not that I had never seen a condom before, but the momentary shock came from the sight of a very personal item out in the open, and of all places, in a new HDB flat’s stairwell.
Obviously a couple had been quick to make their mark here.
I imagined them removing their clothes and trying to find a comfortable position on the hard concrete edges of the staircase. Just the thought of it hurt.
Before we start passing judgments about how gross these young people are, think about it, who would actually enjoy having sex in a stairwell?
Suddenly, the used condom on the staircase felt sad to me, rather than gross. Why would such a beautiful act of intimacy (assuming they were in love) have to be hidden out of sight like a shameful taboo, in the stairwell equivalent of a closet?
It got me thinking about how our society views sex and intimacy, and how it affects our relationships.
Before we continue, here’s an important disclaimer: I believe the decision to have sex or be intimate with someone (or not) is a personal choice. So whether you abstain from sex before marriage due to religious or personal beliefs, or engage in casual sex and one night stands, I respect your choices.
This article, however, is for the rest of us who fall in between two ends of the spectrum. It is for the people in committed relationships who want to explore varying degrees of sexual intimacy with their partners in Singapore, and the obstacles and issues they may face.
Most young unmarried Singaporeans stay with their parents until they get a HDB flat of their own with a spouse. As a result, if you’re in a long-term relationship, many of your dates may be spent at your place or your partner’s.
Halfway through the latest series of Stranger Things or Black Mirror (both not very romantic choices actually) with your girlfriend, you’re seriously wondering, is it literally just Netflix and chill, or is there a happy ending?
Just as you’re about to get in the mood, her mother knocks on the bedroom door, “Ah girl, ask your boyfriend come out and eat fruits.”
Maybe in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep, you and your girlfriend manage a quickie, as quietly as possible, because the walls of her old HDB flat are paper thin. The morning after, your girlfriend’s father sits at the breakfast table reading the papers.
He looks up at you and in a moment of panic you are 100% certain he knows you had sex with his daughter last night. Sheepishly, you say, “Uncle, good morning.” And swear to yourself that you will never sleep over at her parents’ house again.
Until the next time. Because you have no place of your own.
No young respectable couple should have to go through this. But if you do, the pain is real. You know those budget hotel chains like Fragrance and Hotel 81 that used to have hourly rates? You know what that means.
As you check in for the night and pay in cash, you can’t help feeling like a hooker yourself. While you fumble for your ID nervously, another couple steps in. It is a middle-aged guy and a much younger woman with voluptuous curves in an overly-revealing dress, red stilettos and even redder lipstick.
You chicken out for a moment and ask yourself if you’re in the wrong place, if this was a mistake. But hotels in Singapore are expensive, and this is the only one you can afford for now.
When you enter the room, it is very basic, and devoid of any character. White tiled floors, bare walls and a flat, uninviting mattress with hospital-style sheets. This is the saddest room you’ve ever seen.
But you will remember this room vividly, as the place where you almost lost your virginity, but fortunately could not bring yourself to.
Over breakfast the next morning, you and your partner promise never to do anything so silly again, and you swear each other to secrecy. Under no circumstances can anyone know about this embarrassing episode.
Everything is perfect. A soft fluffy bed decorated with rose petals, an entire villa to yourself. Private pool included. Your boyfriend is taking a bath in the luxurious marble tub. You search his backpack for the compartment where he kept your skincare products, and stumble on a pack of condoms.
You are excited and nervous at the same time. Finally, with a space of your own, this is your chance to bring your relationship to the next level. But you can’t seem to get into the mood, and at the end of the trip, you feel like you’ve just wasted a rare opportunity.
From this moment onwards, every holiday you go on with your partner will come with the undertone of an opportunity for the intimacy you can’t get in Singapore.
These are the difficulties faced by young Singaporean couples in the bedroom (that they don’t actually have).
It may be our conservative Asian culture that makes us more reserved about intimacy than our international friends. More than anything else, we fear being judged by our families and sometimes even friends.
Unlike the sex-on-third-date culture prevalent in western cultures, most of us here will at least wait till we ascertain that our partner is someone we really trust and want to be together with for the long haul.
To be fair, many young people in other parts of the world move across the country for college or work, and rent a place with their partners or friends. Singapore is just too small and land-starved for that possibility.
Rental prices in Singapore are very steep, so leaving our parents’ house and moving in together before talking about marriage is not really a realistic option.
This brings me to examine the housing policy in Singapore, and how it has affected couples and their relationships.
As most of us know, under the Build To Order (BTO) housing scheme, Singaporean couples usually go through this process: apply for a flat with the housing board, get a queue number (or not), choose your unit (or try again). Then they plan the wedding and tie the knot before receiving their house keys from the government.
This process takes up to five years.
Before that happens, we will continue living under our parents’ roofs with our siblings and sometimes extended family like grandparents.
In Singapore, housing policies are closely tied to the institutions of the nuclear family and marriage. And by subsidising BTO flats for young married couples and giving priority to those with children on the way, our government seems to be thinking: A key function of marriage is procreation.
This is completely understandable if you think from the national perspective. Our ageing population and waning birth rates are an urgent and worrying problem for the future of our families and society.
There also has to be some form of balloting system in place to allocate the scarce land resources our country has, and thus housing becomes an incentive for us to settle down and start a family.
While acknowledging the limitations of our country’s circumstances, I also hope we can consider policies not just from the administrative and functional perspective, but from a more empathetic and human-centred one.
Empathy is especially important in housing policies, because we are not just building blocks of concrete and steel, but the homes and foundations of families and children.
And how does sexual intimacy come into the picture?
A happy and healthy marriage is built with a strong foundation. If marriage is the beginning of a lifelong marathon, then the years of being in a committed relationship is our training to prepare for a shared life ahead.
Living together and having the choice to connect on a more intimate level will empower couples to make the right choice in a lifelong decision.
And a strong and enduring marriage is a foundation of a happy family. A resilient relationship between parents cultivates a healthy and loving environment for children to grow up in.
If family is such an important institution in our society, then perhaps we could think about how our policies and culture can evolve to help couples build a strong foundation for a lasting marriage.
Until then, the HDB staircase is their only hiding place.