Lift upgrading lifts spirits of many residents

Madam Jojo Tan (standing) with her mother-in-law, Madam Chong Kong Yi, and their domestic helper Nur Chasanah, 35, at the lift outside their 13th-floor HDB flat. The LUP has made a world of difference to the elderly wheelchair user, who need no longer be carried up or down a flight of stairs just to access a lift.

Leaving her Serangoon Central flat for some fresh air used to be a daunting task for wheelchair user Chong Kong Yi, 95.

The biggest obstacle: the stairs leading from her 13th-floor Housing Board flat to the lift one floor below.

Said her daughter-in-law Jojo Tan, 50: "We used to have to take the lift to the 12th floor, walk along a long corridor, before carrying my mother-in-law up the stairs. It was really inconvenient and tiring."

The family has lived there since 1987. Last November, a lift finally arrived on their floor - and just metres from their flat too.

That made all the difference, said Madam Tan, who is a clerk: "At least my mother-in-law can go out more often now, instead of being bored at home. She's a lot happier."

For many households, the stair-free stroll from the lift lobby to their flat is taken for granted.

Yet a decade ago, it was something that many residents had to hope, wait and vote for under the $5 billion Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP).

By the end of last year, the scheme had achieved its aim of bringing lift access on every floor to 5,000 blocks.

Though some construction work continues, there is at least one new lift operating in all upgraded blocks.

But its 13-year duration was not without controversy.

The programme was necessary because flats built before 1990 did not have lifts that stopped at every floor. Previously, it was offered under the HDB's main and interim upgrading programmes.

But some MPs worried that this would mean a long wait for lift access, not least for the growing number of elderly residents.

So in 2001, the standalone LUP began. At the time, the Government estimated that it would take 15 years and $4.8 billion to retrofit 4,000 HDB blocks.

Even back then, the spectres of future challenges were visible.

First, the programme initially excluded about 1,000 low-rise blocks that would have been too expensive or difficult to upgrade.

Second, the LUP started to take on a strong political edge.

In the Committee of Supply speech where he announced the LUP, then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan reiterated the stance that "upgrading programmes are possible only because our people continue to support the Government" which generates budget surpluses.

"That is why... the Government has given priority to those who have actively supported these programmes."

Fast forward to just two months before the 2001 General Election, and he was even more blunt: "It's only fair that we give those constituencies that have given us support, higher priority."

The new scheme featured in a few election promises in 2001. By the 2006 elections, it had become one of the hottest political topics.

PAP candidates brandished promises to deliver lift upgrading soon. But the opposition decried what it saw as the use of a national programme for party gain.

Opposition party leaders were quick to slam the move.

Just a day before the May 6 General Election, Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang even called the politicisation of the national programme "immoral". He said: "If they want to continue with the policy of upgrading using government funding to selectively reward PAP supporters, they are dividing Singapore."

Voters were understandably concerned, recalled Singapore Democratic Alliance leader Desmond Lim, who contested in Pasir Ris-Punggol in 2006.

"If I'm living in a mature estate and my parents are ageing, then a lift that stops on my doorstep becomes an essential service."

He added: "People told us, 'Sorry, I have to vote for them or we will be like (former long-time opposition ward) Potong Pasir, with no upgrading'."

PAP MP Lee Bee Wah recalled lift upgrading as the main request that residents had in 2006.

Some four-storey blocks in her Nee Soon South ward had been left out of the scheme. When she approached the HDB about this, she was told that lift upgrading was not possible for those blocks.

Said Ms Lee: "I told them, 'You don't need to give me a big lift like the ones in high-rise blocks. Just give me a small lift that can accommodate a wheelchair and two persons'."

That turned out to be exactly what she got. Smaller lifts were among the solutions that the HDB found for blocks that were originally unsuitable.

New construction methods, lighter materials and special designs such as bubble lifts lowered costs and made lift upgrading viable for more blocks.

With these innovations, the number of ineligible blocks fell from 1,000 to just 200 in 2013 - and the HDB is still looking for solutions for these last blocks.

The political storm over the LUP, too, has subsided with time. In 2009, it was announced that precincts in the opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir would be selected for LUP.

It was a stark shift from the Government's previous position that lift upgrading would be completed in all PAP wards first.

And when the Workers' Party won Aljunied GRC in the 2011 elections, lift upgrading there proceeded as planned. The LUP had shed its partisan skin.

But for opposition leader Chiam See Tong, whose former ward Potong Pasir had been at the centre of the LUP storm for years, the bitterness remains.

Mr Chiam told The Straits Times last week that what the LUP really demonstrated was "a remarkable lack of foresight in planning".

"Did HDB envisage the needs of residents when they get old and become less mobile?" he asked.

Mr Chiam does not rule out the LUP's lingering political usefulness: "It has been said that the delayed completion date of LUP, in time for the next general election, is yet another election gimmick."

But, political or not, this simple fact remains: Today, residents in over 500,000 households have benefited from the scheme.

For some, lifts on every floor just saves a few seconds of walking - along corridors and having to take the stairs.

For others, it makes a world of difference.

One of them is accounts assistant Katharine Wong, 50, who lives in Jurong West.

When her parents' flat was being renovated last year, they came to stay with her and her husband.

It took four men to carry her 79-year-old father, a stroke patient, from the 10th-floor lift landing to their eighth-floor flat.

When her parents were due to return to their own flat, the paramedic helping to transport her father had brought a special chair to carry him downstairs.

But by then, upgrading had been completed.

She recalled telling them: "I said, 'Uncle, no need for that already, now there's a lift'."

This article was first published on Jan 05, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.