HDB lifts were once some of the most dangerous places in S’pore. What happened?

Firsthand Looks Back: In the 80s, 90s, and even the 2000s, lift robberies had Singaporeans worried about wearing their favourite jewellery out of the house.

Ethan Ong | November 13, 2023, 11:39 AM



Did you know there was a time in Singapore when lifts were considered dangerous places?

The problem was bad enough that in the 1980s and 1990s, posters were put up, encouraging people to be aware and alert of their surroundings when taking the lift.

The reason? Lift robberies.

Even in the early 2000s, lift robberies were still very much a thing.

Some of the key taglines were:

“Avoid travelling alone, especially in lonely dark areas.”

“Don’t be an easy target for criminals. Avoid flaunting your valuables in public.”

Today, the once-pervasive phenomenon of lift robberies has become a distant memory, enshrined only in newspaper clippings and retro CrimeWatch episodes.

You might be old enough to remember going through it.

Or you might be a Gen Z or young millennial, who grew up in an era in which the worst thing that could happen in a lift is finding a cockroach.

Either way, it’s worth recalling: exactly how bad were lift robberies back then?

Was the situation really so drastic as to warrant newspaper forum pieces and parliament debates?

Theft & violence

During a parliamentary sitting on Mar. 23, 1987, Minister of Home Affairs S Jayakumar highlighted the problem of lift robberies in Singapore.

While the incidence of other crimes like snatch thefts and housebreaking had gone down, lift robberies had experienced the exact opposite — increasing by 37 per cent as compared to two years prior.

“We must now join hands in tackling the question of lift robberies,” he stressed.

Screenshot from the Hansard

Data from the National Crime Prevention Council corroborated this, showing the rising incidence of theft in the 80s to 90s.

While this was evidently not exclusive to lift robberies, lift robberies must have constituted a fair bit of the problem.

The problem was also extensively covered in the press.

Take for instance this article, published on Aug. 15, 1991, in The New Paper.

It covered one of Singapore’s most famous manhunts, for two men who were behind a massive slew of 50 lift robberies all around Singapore.

They started in January of that year and were still at large by the time the news was reported in August.

On Mar. 30, 1996, The New Paper reported that one of the men had been sentenced to 10 years’ jail.

The man, who committed 20 lift robberies in an impressive three months, was a taxi driver in his late 30s.

Which, by the way, wasn’t even his greatest ‘feat’. His biggest achievement would probably have been robbing three different people within an hour.

The problem wasn’t limited to mere theft, either.

Some assailants also turned violent.

The Straits Times Weekly edition

On Sep. 9, 1995, 48-year-old Kwek Lee Hare was murdered in a lift on her way home from the market.

The police suspected that the motive behind the attack was most likely a robbery.

Even though none of her valuables were taken, the presumption was not ruled out — probably because of what she was wearing that day.

According to The Straits Times, she was wearing a fair bit of jewellery: “a jade pendant and bangle, a gold chain, ring and bracelet”, to be exact.

Which was one of the attributes lift robbers looked out for in their potential victims.

Finding a target

You might recall the earlier posters, many of which shared a similar piece of advice.

Avoid flashy jewellery.

This is because assailants appeared to target people who wore multiple sets of jewellery.

From there, they would single out those who looked defenceless and alone.

Thus, many of their targets ended up being the elderly and women.

Excerpt from “He struck 3 times in 1 hour”

Excerpt from “50 robberies in lift: hunt for 2”

Excerpt from “3 lift robberies in my block? I didn’t know?!”

After identifying their targets, they’d lock in on them.

Some would wait at void decks to look for potential targets before tailing them into lifts.

After making sure no one else was around, they would corner their victims and threaten them to make them hand over their prized possessions.

Public sentiment

Surprisingly, despite all the posters and the press, public perception was less than uniform.

“3 lift robberies in my block? I didn’t know!” read one headline in The New Paper.

Image from Newspaper SG

Published Sep. 8, 1995, the article focused on the curious case of Block 160 of Lorong 1 Toa Payoh.

Despite three robbery cases being reported there in the past year, some residents appeared oddly apathetic, even blissfully unaware.

After speaking to residents, the reporter summed it up as such:

“To some, it is a block of fear. To others, it is a matter of indifference.”

In other words, sentiment was divided. Some were afraid, but there were others who — it appeared — just didn’t care.

As one student put it: “I didn’t care. I thought it won’t happen to me.”

Solving the problem

If ignorance was the problem, awareness could be a solution, the authorities decided.

The first step was public education — hence all the posters.

The second was lift improvements.

Take this forum piece, calling for panic buttons in lifts, for instance:

Image from Newspaper SG, The Straits Times March 11, 1992

Although panic buttons were never implemented, the forum letter did highlight the loopholes that robbers took advantage of.

These days, it’s a given that lifts stop at every level of an HDB block.

But this wasn’t the case until 1995, when all new HDB blocks were designed as such.

Prior to that, there were longer gaps between floors — giving robbers more time to commit their crimes.

Eventually, in 2001, the Lift Upgrading Programme was introduced, and lifts have since been built or upgraded to stop at every floor of older blocks.

Two other key features were also added to lifts: CCTVs, and see-through glass panels.

Photo from Fabrications About Singapore's Facebook page

Both are now so ubiquitous that it’s kind of strange to imagine a Singapore in which lifts don’t have these.

But in 1995, the idea of installing cameras in lifts was novel enough that a forum letter suggesting this was published in The Straits Times:

Image from Newspaper SG, The Straits Times, September 13, 1995

It was also raised in Parliament in 1981, with then-Minister of State for National Development Lee Yock Suan noting that while CCTVs were an “effective deterrent” of crimes, the cameras might be obstructed.

“The HDB is quite hesitant to install CCTV in all its lifts, as the capital cost involved is $20 million and the annual maintenance cost is $6 million,” he said.

“The HDB is now studying other lift security systems in order to choose a more effective and cheaper alternative.”

It seems, however, that an adequate alternative was never found. In 1995, Minister for National Development Lim Hng Kiang noted in Parliament that HDB had begun trialling video cameras in lifts.

By 2016, the Ministry of National Development announced that all new HDB blocks would be installed with Lift Surveillance Systems.

And in 2020, the letter writer’s advice finally came to full fruition — by then, every single HDB lift in the People’s Action Party town councils was equipped with cameras.

As for the glass panels in our lifts, you might not have realised it — but they’re more than just decorative.

The rationale behind the panels, which became a feature around 1992, was explained as such in a parliament sitting by then-Minister for National Development Lim Hng Kiang:

“This deters crime as assaulters would risk being seen by people at the lift lobbies as the lifts pass by them.”

He added that the new feature of lifts stopping at every level also “enhances security because there is less time for crime to be committed in the lifts”.

Article from The Straits Times

A thing of the past?

As a blessedly sheltered member of Singapore’s strawberry generation, my biggest fear with a lift is that it’ll break down and I’ll end up late for work.

But it’s a good reminder that things have not always been this way.

And perhaps lift safety is still something we take for granted.

As recently as in 2015, the question of installing CCTVs in HDB lifts for security purposes has come up.

And in 2014, mirrors were installed in HDB lifts for extra (and extra cost-effective) deterrence. A police spokesperson told Today Online that it was part of a pilot project by the Jurong Police Division to “further enhance our crime prevention efforts”.

While explicit violence may be less of an issue, there are other, equally unsavoury things to watch out for.

For example:

As the authorities periodically remind us: Low crime doesn’t mean no crime.

Still, we’ve come a long way. Thanks to all these nifty features, we no longer have to avoid entering lifts alone, or stow away our jewellery before pressing the door-close button, for fear of our lives.

And thank goodness for that, considering I live on the 24th floor.

Top image via NewspaperSG

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