This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Since 1996, Singapore’s building code has required that all new apartment buildings are constructed with a personal bomb shelter. With their reinforced walls and blast-proof doors, these shelters are designed to shield occupants from shock waves and shrapnel, just in case the city ever gets bombed.
The reasons for this worst-case preparation are both cultural and environmental. Singapore is a city-state of well organized public infrastructure at the bottom of the highly disputed South China Sea. It’s a region where the prospect of violence seems real, and Singapore’s government has approached the issue with the same pragmatism they’ve applied to building roads and subway systems.
Today, you can find a bomb shelter in just almost every residential unit built after 1997, but not just in homes. There are also 575 common shelters around Singapore, usually in public areas underground train stations, schools, and community centers.
We wanted to see how bomb shelters are utilized today in people’s homes, and how everyone feels about this constant reminder of war. Here’s what they said.
VICE: Hi Celin, what do you use your bomb shelter for?
Celin Chen: A storage space, which is what everyone does. We moved in a few years back, and when we show the apartment to friends we don’t actually call it a bomb shelter. It’s just second nature to call it “the storeroom.”
What do you imagine would happen if Singapore got bombed one day? Would you actually use your bomb shelter?
No, although it’s supposedly a yes. We’ve tried staying in there once, but it’s really warm, even with the doors open. I don’t think we’d survive in there if we closed the door.
So where would you go? I read that in the event of a bombing, a single column of bomb shelters would be left standing after the rest of the building collapses.
Yeah, I’d run downstairs immediately. I just think it’s too risky. I don’t like the idea of being trapped inside. Also, I think the building would still topple, even if it's not a high-rise. We basically can’t escape if we use the bomb shelter to seek refuge. We’d be trapped.
You’re from Singapore, but you said you didn’t know these shelters were a mandatory part of the building code?
We had no idea. I don’t think there has been enough public awareness about it. For us, bomb shelters have always just been for storage space. That said, I know that Singapore’s government is all about planning ahead, and especially with SGSecure [the national plan to prevent and deal with terrorism]. And I think shelters are just part of that plan.
Min Sang, 28
VICE: Hey Min Sang, tell me about bomb shelters.
Min Sang: Some people use them to accommodate their maids, which is a shame because there’s so little air inside. One of my colleagues uses his to brew beer, because they’re dark and maintain a stable temperature. Everything is also portable so it keeps it within regulations. It’s almost classed as wine, just leaving it in storage.
Do you think you’d use your bomb shelter if Singapore got bombed?
It wouldn’t be the first place I’d go. The first place I’d go would be the ground floor. The bomb shelter won’t do anything if you’re on the top floor, or on the 14th floor, where I am. If the building crumbles, I’d just crumble with it.
Apparently the Singapore Civil Defense Force says they’ll come rescue you.
I would much rather spend my time running down to the first floor, saving myself, rather than hiding in a bomb shelter. I don’t think it’s a realistic way to survive a bombing. I feel it’s safer to be outside—having the freedom to move around and to get to where you need to be.
VICE: Hi Michell, thanks for letting me into your home. First things first, how do you use your bomb shelter?
Michell: We use it as a storeroom. Basically all the bomb shelters in Singapore are used for storage.
Yeah, I’ve noticed. So you'd use yours if a bomb went off?
I doubt I’d use my bomb shelter. I’d probably just run downstairs. I don’t think it’s a matter of claustrophobia, so much as we just see it as just a storage area and not a bomb shelter.
I’ve also heard this answer a few times. Tell me, do you think Singapore is a safe place?
It’s very safe. We’re not in danger and I think that’s why no one uses their bomb shelters seriously. I would think they’re a necessary thing to have, but nobody here has been properly educated on how to use them. And I guess that’s largely attributed to the fact that we’ve never seen a bomb shelter in demonstration before—since obviously an attack has never happened. We don't even know if they actually work. I’ve heard that the buildings are designed to collapse, leaving the shelters in a single, 15-story column? Well, I’ve never seen that so I don’t know if it’s true.
Yeah, I think everyone feels that way. Did you know that Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to make bomb shelters a building requirement?
Really? I had no idea. But actually I think it’s great that Singapore takes these precautions and measures. You never know what’ll happen, and it’s good to be prepared.
Are you prepared?
Probably not. If you take a look at our storeroom, you’ll see it’s really packed to the brim with junk. There’s absolutely no space for us to hide in there. And we could pull all the stuff out, but I don’t think it would be possible in an emergency to dismantle all that shelving. Plus, we don’t have any extra room for storage, so we’ll probably keep using it as storage. I don’t think there’s a single person who leaves their shelter empty.
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