Sunday, 3 June 2012

The not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) syndrome

Altruism, the antidote to rising Nimbyism
A case for motivating citizens to look out for others
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

THE rejection by residents this week of a nursing home in Bishan is the latest in a series of citizen actions motivated by not-in- my-backyard concerns.

Forty residents submitted a petition calling on the Government to site the home elsewhere.

Their arguments were entirely self-interested: that air flow to their homes will be blocked, resulting in higher electricity bills because they will need to switch on air-conditioners; that their children will no longer be able to play football on the field where the home will stand; and - believe it or not - 'the old folk will be groaning right into my home'.

Nimbyism - shorthand for the not-in-my-backyard syndrome - is on the rise in Singapore, with similar incidents in recent months in Toh Yi and Upper Bukit Timah.

In April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong flagged this as one of two worrying trends - the other being the growing divide between Singaporeans and foreigners.

There are ways to see this latest trend in a positive light. It is a sign that Singaporeans are taking ownership of their neighbourhoods and getting involved in community decision-making. Apathy is giving way to civic action.

But Nimbyism should worry us. Just as a family made up of individuals who look out only for themselves quickly breaks up, a democracy of purely self-interested citizens falls apart. Some altruism is needed to gel together disparate interests to build a nation.

A cynic may say: Get real! Since when has democracy been about national interest? All politics is local. National interest is included in the political rhetoric to make voters feel good about themselves. But when it comes to the crunch, the voter marks the voting slip while thinking: 'What's in it for me?'

In fact, political science has proven this false. Altruism is what drives many, if not most, to vote when voting is not compulsory. For years, one problem persistently puzzled political scientists. Why do people vote, when it does not seem rational to do so? Costs greatly outweigh benefits. You take time off work or leisure, go to the polling station and queue up to vote. Costs vary according to your income and where you live, but in dollar terms, it is not too far from, say, $50.

Now the benefits. To calculate this - you have to take my word for it, I have it from the mathematicians - you take the probability of your vote affecting the election outcome - that is, either a tie occurs or a candidate wins by one vote - and multiply that by your perceived benefit from your preferred candidate winning, say, in lower taxes or a greater sense of pride or hope.

The estimated probability of a single vote being pivotal in an American statewide election is roughly one in 3.5 million. That means, in order for it to be worthwhile to vote - your benefits from a particular candidate winning must exceed $175 million (3.5 million times $50)! A situation that clearly never occurs.

Scholars proposed another solution: civic duty. When people vote, they derive satisfaction from fulfilling their duties as citizens. That warm feeling outweighs the cost. This did not resolve the problem, since it is known that more people vote in close races. Your sense of civic duty, however, is constant. Voting in and of itself gives satisfaction, whether or not the race is close.

Finally, a group of scholars led by Professor James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego came up with what came to be accepted as the answer. People vote because they care not just for themselves, but also for fellow citizens. An American votes, say, in a presidential election because he believes the benefits that a candidate brings accrue to himself and to 300 million other Americans. Throw altruism into the formula and it becomes rational to vote.

Prof Fowler conducted experiments showing that altruistic people were indeed more likely to vote than less altruistic people.

What is the moral of this story for Nimbyism and for Singapore?

For one thing, we are all altruistic to a certain extent. But sometimes, when the cost is so direct - say, a nursing home in my estate - our better instincts falter.

There is a moral for politicians too. Our altruistic side is there but it is fragile and needs nurturing. Politicians should take it upon themselves to motivate the electorate to look out for their neighbours and fellow citizens.

This message also needs to be consistent - even during an election campaign. Voters should be asked to make decisions for the good of their neighbourhood and their nation, for their constituency and all other constituencies.

It was unhelpful, therefore, that during the 2011 General Election, politicians from both the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP) at times called on Aljunied's voters to be self-interested.

Part of the PAP message was that Aljunied voters should vote with their 'enlightened self-interest'. 'It is a heavy burden to ask them to vote for the rest of Singapore. It's not their responsibility. Voters of Aljunied should vote for themselves,' one PAP leader said.

To make matters worse, a WP candidate seemed to legitimise this argument with the following message: 'Please, please, first look after yourselves. Ask before you vote: How can you make yourself better?'

My point is that, as hard as it may be in the heat of a campaign, we should always ask voters in every ward to be altruistic.

I often wonder why we remember a line from a speech 60 years ago by former US president John F. Kennedy: 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.'

Perhaps it was because Kennedy, while not naive about people's self-centredness, nevertheless pointed to the nobler elements in them, and tried to inspire them to bring those elements into a fuller expression.

Forging a more altruistic citizenry is the right thing to do. It is also the way we build good democratic citizens who are less likely to then demand that every inconvenient facility be built in somebody else's backyard.

Nursing home? 'Anywhere but here'
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

What it's all about

A GROUP of Bishan residents are protesting against the Government's plan to build a nursing home in their neighbourhood along Bishan Street 13.

At a dialogue over the Ministry of Health's (MOH) plans on Sunday, about 40 residents petitioned against the home, saying it should be built elsewhere.

Their main complaints were that the new building, which is to be built on an existing football field, would deprive children of the recreational space and block the breeze coming into their flats.

The 260-bed Lions Home for the Elders is scheduled to be built by end-2014.

What's the buzz?

THE opposition to the nursing home was quickly cast as the latest example of Singaporeans not wanting certain types of amenities in their neighbourhood - or, as many know it, the not-in-my- backyard (Nimby) syndrome.

It adds to the spate of Nimby cases that started in February, when residents in Woodlands objected to plans for a day-care centre for the elderly at the void decks of two blocks. Soon after, residents in Toh Yi also petitioned against plans for studio apartments for the elderly in the area.

Last month, it was the turn of Tanjong Rhu residents, this time over planned elderly facilities at the void decks of two Jalan Batu blocks. The same month, some Upper Bukit Timah residents protested against plans for taller condominiums in their neighbourhood.

The series of cases has sparked much debate over the Nimby attitude, with concerns growing over what this could mean for Singapore's physical and social development.

Some Singaporeans were quick to brand the residents as being selfish. If everyone thought the same way, they pointed out, where would the elderly facilities go? And how would Singapore then cater to its ageing population, if no one wanted a day-care centre or elderly home in their backyard?

But others said some of the reasons given by the residents were understandable. The Nimby syndrome, they said, was a natural result of the nation's focus on economic imperatives that they said often came at the expense of social needs.

Why it matters

NO LESS than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has flagged his concerns over the 'worrying trend' of Nimby, warning that it could affect Singapore's efforts to build cohesion among its communities.

But the attitude could also make urban planning more difficult for the authorities: The Government may have to deal with the dilemma of trying to be consultative on the one hand, and acting for the greater public good on the other, especially as the need to prepare the nation for a 'silver tsunami' grows increasingly urgent.

As one writer to The Straits Times Forum page put it: 'It is hard for the Government to please everyone.'

But the Nimby syndrome also promises to put the spotlight on the Government's consultative process. The MOH has explained that in consulting residents on plans for elderly facilities, it seeks feedback on how the actual services, traffic and other concerns can be addressed.

The question is, how much further does - or should - this consultation go? What happens when, as the cases show, residents are against the idea in the first place?

What's next?

A CLUE to the answers to these questions may lie in the way the Government responds to the individual Nimby cases.

In some of the cases, construction was put on hold while MPs tried to sort out the issue with residents, or the plans were revised to take their concerns into account.

In others, the authorities have made it clear that the plans will go ahead. Naturally, this has not gone down well: At Toh Yi, several residents are continuing their protests against the move.

At Bishan, the MOH has said that it will consider the latest feedback on its plans. It has also said that six new nursing homes will be built in HDB estates over the next few years.

That could mean more Nimby cases, and another bout of soul-searching for Singapore.

Understanding the Nimby syndrome
MR LIM Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) are among MPs who have received petitions from residents opposing the building of elderly facilities in their neighbourhood.

What do you think of the recent spate of not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) protests against nursing and elderly homes in Mountbatten, Bishan, Toh Yi and Woodlands?

Lim Biow Chuan (LBC): It may not be useful for us to generalise residents who submit a petition as 'people who are adopting a Nimby approach'. For many of them, they do have a real concern about their surroundings. The issue is whether we can understand their concerns better and how the Government can try to address them.

Ellen Lee (EL): Behind the whole psyche is the fact that there is this belief they must be consulted, and this sense of ownership that whatever they have belongs to them, including the void deck space. As a result, if you come and invade that space, you have to be answerable.

What is at the heart of this problem? Do you think it just comes from people acting selfishly?

EL: The residents who voiced objection initially could be labouring under some misconceptions, based on rumours and fears. Once they are given the facts and assurance that it is really a good thing for the neighbourhood, they accept. There are also a few who are anti-PAP and will oppose because they know PAP MPs are pushing for these centres for the Government.

How do MPs balance consultation with the need for elderly facilities?

LBC: Frequently, there is a silent majority (especially illiterate elderly) who may not be able to articulate their concerns and wishes eloquently. The Government should consider their interests as well.

EL: My residents understood the need, they just... wanted to hear for themselves what the local situation was really like and what our plans were to cope with it. In the end, we came to a compromise. I asked them for a wish list, and out of the 15 requests, I could accede to about 13 or 14, such as having an extended sheltered walkway.

Some blame the Government's over-emphasis on economic pragmatism for raising a society that puts economics above compassion. What do you think?

LBC: At end of the day, it is up to each individual to decide... the values he wants to see, and to push for them. If we keep saying it is because the Government does this or that, it is just a blame game. It doesn't solve any problems.

EL: Even in poorer countries, there are Nimbys. It is an initial reaction to change which had never occurred to them would be necessary, or putting it in place before they think they are ready for it.

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