Monday, 9 June 2014

Most neighbours just say 'hi' and 'bye'

Few displays of trust among HDB residents, study finds; plans now afoot to raise cohesion
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Sunday Times, 8 Jun 2014

Neighbours may exchange greetings and make small talk, but that's as far as many Singaporeans go.

Displays of trust, such as looking after house keys or lending and borrowing items, are seldom heard of in Housing Board estates.

Residents' interactions also tend to be "incidental and minimal", according to study findings released by the HDB and the National University of Singapore Centre of Sustainable Asian Cities and Sociology department. These findings, however, do not surprise experts.

"The more densely packed we are, the more we value privacy," said sociologist Paulin Straughan.

"Modern society prides itself on being independent. As a result, we don't make the additional effort to reach out to our neighbours. Unlike the olden days in a kampung, when neighbours needed each other to borrow rice, for instance.

"Combined with the work stress that comes with urban living, when you retreat to the sanctity of your own home, you want it to be your own private sphere. Many of us put up a sub-conscious barrier and it becomes a norm."

Associate Professor Straughan added that such behaviour is prevalent in cosmopolitan and urban cities.

In a bid to find out how design and amenities have contributed to interaction among residents, the year-long study surveyed about 2,200 residents in five HDB towns.

Respondents were asked to score their frequency of interactions with neighbours, from a score of one (never) to five (daily). Overall, they ranked "exchange of greetings/ small talk" as the most frequent activity, with a mean score of 3.47.

Safekeeping of house keys and borrowing and lending household items ranked the lowest at 1.11 and 1.25 respectively.

MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Gan Thiam Poh said that he has noticed this lack of neighbourliness in the less mature estates, where neighbours have spent less time together: "To my surprise, I have met residents who don't even know their next-door neighbours."

Ms Ellen Lee, MP for Sembawang GRC, said that while most residents are on cordial terms, few are extremely close.

But she added that there are the "rare gems" who have potluck parties together, take care of one another's children and collect their neighbours' newspapers or water their plants when they are travelling.

Mr Gan attended a recent wake where he learnt of a Hougang resident who had bought breakfast for her sickly neighbour every day before the latter died.

"She didn't even ask to be paid back. It was very heartwarming - I think such a good kampung spirit should be encouraged," he said.

Sales promoter Soon Kam Mee, who lives in a four-room flat in Bishan, said she is close to her neighbour on the 18th floor, partly because their children went to the same kindergarten and primary school. The two buy each other souvenirs when they travel.

But the 56-year-old does not interact much with her immediate neighbours on the eighth storey, as they are "either very busy with work or seldom at home".

In order to improve bonding between residents, the HDB plans to explore ideas yielded from the study, which involved six focus group discussions with residents.

One includes turning public walkways through housing estates into "social linkways" by adding seats or exhibits to encourage people to linger when they meet a neighbour. Another is a one-stop hub for community activities, or a "neighbourhood incubator".

The two initiatives will be piloted in Tampines Central from this month until May next year. If successful, they will be adopted at the new Bidadari and Tampines North estates.

Prof Straughan believes infrastructure can play a big part in fostering cohesiveness. "If you allow common congregation spots where people can do things together, it will help," she said. "But at the end of the day... it's hard to change human behaviour patterns, so it can't be a short-term effort."


Band of neighbours who are like family

A recent survey conducted by the Housing Board and the National University of Singapore shows that while neighbours in HDB estates exchange greetings and small talk, they seldom engage in activities that demand higher levels of trust, such as safeguarding house keys and lending items to one another.
Yeo Sam Jo spoke to three different groups of neighbours who buck this trend, and show that the proverbial kampung spirit still exists in our neighbourhoods.
The Sunday Times, 22 Jun 2014

Walk past Block 827, Woodlands Street 81 and you might hear acoustic renditions of Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer or Jessie J's Price Tag coming from the sixth storey.

This is no radio but principal engineer Faisal Meskam and his neighbours, who gather about once a month in his flat to jam with their guitars and keyboards.

The four band members are sometimes joined by their teenage children, who squeeze in contemporary tunes alongside their staple repertoire of 1980s hits.

"We just started playing for fun about 10 years ago," said Mr Faisal, 46, and a father of three. "Now we plan what songs to try out and can go from 3pm all the way till midnight or 1am."

Making music is just one of many ways the neighbours, who all live on the same floor, band together. Many members of the tight-knit group of 14 households have known one another since moving in 20 years ago. And for the past three years, they have thrown potluck parties to celebrate Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Christmas.

They pull out tables and chairs, and the entire floor is filled with chatter, melodies from the resident band, and the fragrant aromas of mutton curry, nasi lemak, lontong, pizza and other home-cooked food.

"It's a fun group. We can't help but enjoy ourselves when we get together," said Mr Philip Royston Samy Victoria, 50. "Even the police have come because of noise complaints."

The neighbours share a close friendship and mutual trust. They leave their doors open, exercise and go on holiday together, share extra food, hold on to one another's spare keys and feed the pets of those who are away.

"We're closer to one another than to our own relatives. We see one another every day and can confide in one another," said Mrs Phyllis Goh, 52. The housewife lives with her husband, two sons, daughter and two grandchildren.

Private tutor Kanaka Sekar, 41, who lives with her husband and son, said: "It's like a kampung. The kids run around but we don't worry. We know they are in a neighbour's house."

The children bond over Xbox games and the adults exchange WhatsApp messages.

"I feel quite lucky that we are so close," said Mr Faisal's daughter, junior college student Sabrina, 17. "Many of my friends don't talk to their neighbours."

They may not have developed such a close bond were it not for Mr Victoria, a senior manager with self-help group Sinda, and his wife Shareen, 46, who live with their four children in the unit just next to the floor's lift landing and central rubbish chute.

"It started with us saying hello to everyone throwing their rubbish or waiting for the lift. Everyone was warm and many had young children who could play together, so everything just fell into place," said Mr Victoria. "If I closed my door, this would never have happened. We just look out for one another and have a very good 'gotong royong' (mutual help) spirit."

The group's ethnic diversity has also helped the neighbours become more sensitive to one another's culture. "Once I almost gave funeral money in a red envelope but my Chinese neighbour told me they don't do that," said Mrs Sekar.

"We learn from one another. My family considered moving out but we couldn't bear to leave everyone here behind. We cannot get this community elsewhere," she added.

Lifelong friendship began with curry
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Sunday Times, 22 Jun 2014

It may have been more than 20 years ago, but Madam Iruthayamary Arulnathan still remembers her former neighbours' sons boisterously running in and out of their Potong Pasir flats every day.

"The doors could not be closed or they would bang them," recalled the 67-year-old housewife, her face breaking into a smile.

"Sometimes they would even sleep over in our house, and my husband would read stories to them."

Madam Mary, as she is known, wishes she could bring those days back.

It all started in 1985, when Mrs Grace Sim and her husband Danny moved into the unit across hers at Block 144, Potong Pasir Avenue 2.

"Somebody knocked on the door one day and it was Danny. He had caught this huge mackerel - more than 1m long - and he offered me some of it.

"Grace was pregnant with her first child Jeremy then, so with the fish, I cooked some curry for her," she said.

This little exchange soon evolved into a friendship.

When Jeremy was born, Madam Mary visited the family in the hospital, and even took on the role of a confinement nanny, cooking for Mrs Sim and feeding the baby.

To thank her, the Sims took Madam Mary and her two sons to Hong Kong in 1986, and paid for their flight and accommodation.

Together with her husband, Mr Vincent Jothiraj, she would often babysit the Sims' elder sons, Jeremy and Jarrod.

The boys started calling them periyamma and periyappa (Tamil for auntie and uncle) - something which they still do today.

"She's very good with kids," said Mrs Sim, 50.

"My children remember her very fondly. At one stage, they could even count in Tamil."

Things changed, however, when Mr Vincent died of cancer in 1995, and Madam Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer two months later.

"Jeremy was crying and screaming at my husband's funeral. That's how close they were," said Madam Mary, who recovered after chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

She then went to London for six months to stay with her two sons who work there. When she returned, the Sims, who now have three sons in their 20s, had moved into a bigger flat a few blocks away.

"We don't see each other often now, but we still think of each other," said Mrs Sim, who is a real estate agent.

Although they live apart, they try to stay in touch.

"Jeremy came over last year to introduce his girlfriend to me. It's nice to see him all grown-up," said a beaming Madam Mary.

The Catholic also invites the family over for her annual Christmas feast, where she cooks for about 20 guests.

"My favourite is her thosai with curry. It's the best I've tasted," said Mrs Sim. "She's a very nice lady, very warm and very friendly."

Other neighbours agree.

"When my mother-in-law was ill with mouth cancer four years ago, Mary would visit her and make herbal soup every day for three months until she died," said Madam Puspavalli Suppiah, 64, a retiree living in the same block.

"Her selfless love really moved us. We don't know how to repay her," said Madam Puspavalli, who nominated Madam Mary for the two Good Neighbour Awards she received in 2011 and 2013.

"It's her personality, she's very friendly to all the neighbours and always shares her food," said Madam Rebecca Tay, 55, a childcare educator who lives opposite Madam Mary.

Madam Mary is thankful for the friendships.

"You don't lose anything by being friendly. Rebecca always invites me over for their Chinese New Year reunion dinner," she said.

"It makes me feel like part of the family."

Samaritan 'happy to see others happy'
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Sunday Times, 22 Jun 2014

When photographer Annette Wong came down with a stomach ache in the middle of the night three years ago, the first person she thought of calling was her neighbour, Mrs Pang-Chua Soon Hong.

"I could have called my sister-in- law who lives nearby, but Soon Hong was the person I felt comfortable with," said Madam Wong, 45, whose husband was out of town at the time.

Mrs Pang-Chua took her to a hospital in a taxi and stayed with her while she was being treated.

To outsiders, Mrs Pang-Chua may seem an ordinary housewife who cooks for her two children and cares for her elderly father-in-law.

But to her neighbours, the 53-year-old is nothing short of a Samaritan - babysitting their children, accompanying them to the hospital and collecting used books and clothes for the needy.

"I don't have to think about it," said the Woodlands Block 538 resident in Mandarin, shrugging. "We all live so close together, why not help one another?"

And she seems to have stuck by this simple philosophy since moving into her ninth-storey four- room flat 16 years ago, where she lives with her husband, teenage son and daughter, and 81-year-old father-in-law.

Madam Wong, who used to live on the fifth floor of the block but moved to Kuala Lumpur with her husband and 12-year-old daughter 21/2 years ago, also recalls an episode when her washing machine broke down. Mrs Pang-Chua volunteered to do her laundry for a few days until she bought a new washing machine.

"She's a very big-hearted woman," said Madam Wong. "She has no qualms about helping people even if it inconveniences her."

Mrs Pang-Chua, a devout Christian who is married to a 58-year-old pastor, said her religion has played a part in shaping her ethos.

"They always preach about helping people without expecting anything in return. It gives me a huge reminder and I'm happy to see other people happy," said the former church worker who quit to be a housewife in 2003.

Madam Roselinda Garcia, a Filipino permanent resident who lives on the 10th floor with her Singaporean husband and two teenage daughters, is also thankful for Mrs Pang-Chua's charitable spirit.

About twice a year, Madam Garcia ships groceries and second- hand clothes and books back to her village in the Philippines, where her mother would distribute them to needy families.

"(Soon Hong) helps me to collect these used items from her church and other neighbours," said the 45-year-old housewife.

And this habit of sharing does not stop there. "I still have a big box of books from her. She also invites cleaners up to see what they want," said housewife Roselyn Lim, 41, who lives on the 11th floor.

"She will always share any extra food like pandan cake and pineapple tarts. She's a consistent giver."

Madam Lim nominated Mrs Pang-Chua for the Housing Board's Good Neighbour Award, which she received last year.

And the testimonials seem to be countless. When one of her neighbours died of cancer about three years ago, Mrs Pang-Chua took the woman's twin daughters, who were 10, under her wing.

She would cook for them, mend holes in their pants, and take them out during school holidays.

When another neighbour's new maid arrived last year, she volunteered to teach the latter how to cook Chinese food for the family.

"She really takes the time and effort to reach out. Other people won't bother," said Madam Lim.

Added Madam Wong: "I always introduce her to my friends as my 'good neighbour'. She's a gem lah. It's really my blessing to know her."

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