MyTurf

Finding common ground over public decorations

Mr Tham creates displays at the lift lobby outside his flat in Dover Crescent to mark festivals. He keeps fire-retardant paint and a fire extinguisher at hand and has not encountered problems with the authorities.
Mr Tham creates displays at the lift lobby outside his flat in Dover Crescent to mark festivals. He keeps fire-retardant paint and a fire extinguisher at hand and has not encountered problems with the authorities.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

MyTurf is a fortnightly series that aims to tell the untold stories of our neighbourhoods. In this fifth instalment, The Straits Times catches up with three decorators of public corridors or void decks, and takes a look at the tensions between them and the authorities. While approval is needed for public displays, some decorators prefer to skip that step

Among retiree Mark Tham's arsenal of "art" tools, there are two unusual items: fire-retardant paint and a fire extinguisher.

This is because his canvas is the public corridor outside his HDB flat at Block 28D, Dover Crescent.

For the past six years, Mr Tham, 69, has been giving the common space facelifts with elaborate festival displays without asking the authorities for permission.

Instead of a grey wall, residents are greeted by a sea of colour when they step out of the lift on the 19th floor during Chinese New Year and Christmas.

Despite not seeking prior approval for the works, Mr Tham said he has never encountered problems with the authorities.

The special paint and the firefighting equipment help prevent the removal of his public displays by the town council, he believes.

Mr Tham, a former director in a food and beverage company, said: "Everyone has the best intentions when making art, but perhaps artists sometimes (don't realise) that their work might create real hazards for other people."

The issue of unsanctioned public displays was sparked by Lasalle student Priyageetha Dia's now-famous golden staircase, which was not authorised by the town council.

The 25-year-old had plastered a flight of a Jalan Rajah HDB staircase with gold foil as part of her final-year project. She voluntarily removed it on Sunday, leaving only a small gold foil on the bottom step as a memento.

While the staircase grabbed much public attention in the past week, decorators of public spaces have long thrived - some with the explicit permission, and even support, of the authorities and some who fly under the radar.

The HDB, for instance, has a Friendly Faces, Lively Places Fund that provides up to $5,000 for those who want to do public art installations.

But there are some who prefer not to go through the authorities.

Besides Mr Tham, another aspiring artist is retired contractor Or Beng Kooi, 76. Three years ago, he began constructing a pagoda-like tower of items - dolls, toys, figurines and sculptures - at the void deck of his home at Block 108, Yishun Ring Road. Mr Or said his work would likely not have existed if he had gone to the authorities first. "Even if I wanted to build another display, I don't think they will approve it now. The need to seek permission stifles well-meaning creativity," he said.

But Woodlands resident Tan Koon Tat disagrees. The 56-year-old carpenter, who creates ambitious displays at the carpark near his home, says the authorities have to account to residents if things go awry.

That was how MP Louis Ng explained Nee Soon Town Council's removal of Mr Or's display earlier this month. While some described it as an installation worthy of the Singapore Biennale, a major art exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Museum, it had to go due to fire safety concerns, he said.

So where is the line drawn?

Mr Tham said he puts in great effort to plan, prepare and execute his festive displays without inconveniencing or endangering others.

Beyond fire safety considerations, he also makes sure others are not obstructed by the installation.

The installation occupies a sizeable plot at the lift lobby, measuring around 5m by 0.5m. But its placement at the far wall does not block any human passage.

Cultural sensitivities are observed too, said Mr Tham. When the Year of the Pig swings around in 2019, he will not feature any porcine characters, to avoid offending his Muslim neighbours. "It's about being considerate to the other residents who use the space," he said.

Instead of complaints, he gets praises from his MPs when they conduct house visits or from grassroots leaders at the Telok Blangah Dover Crescent Residents' Committee.

"I know it is in a public space and there are rules, but no one has ever threatened to remove the display. In fact, I feel very encouraged by all the (accolades) it gets," said Mr Tham, who is already planning the next tableau for Christmas.

Mr Or, meanwhile, has diverted his attention to growing plants near the seniors corner.

He said: "I built (the old display) for the elderly folk here, not to cause problems for people. It is a great pity that it had to go. But our society is like that, there are rules to follow."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Finding common ground over public decorations'. Print Edition | Subscribe