Only 1 in 10 Singaporeans have any shared memories with their HDB neighbours. But perhaps social media can help create the new ‘kampongs’ of today, programme Talking Point finds out
SINGAPORE: The knock on her door came at 3am. Nekmah Mahadi opened it to see one of her neighbours, an elderly man living alone, covered in blood. He’d fallen and broke his ribs, with no one else to turn to for help.
The Bedok South resident called for an ambulance. And over the next few months as he lay in hospital, she visited him, bringing his dirty clothes home to wash. Ms Nekmah, 47, watches out for many other elderly neighbours in her estate in the same way – reminding them to take their medication, accompanying them to the market, or reading out letters to them. They all have her phone number.
“Some of the Indian residents, they speak Indian to me, Chinese they speak Hokkien, Cantonese … whatever I can, I just answer them, if not I would talk in Malay, or (we) gesture only,” she said. “For me, it comes naturally. I accept them as my family.”
That open-door manner and willingness to communicate in whatever way possible is the essence of what is now nostalgically remembered as ‘kampong spirit’ – which describes the days when village neighbours knew each other and were ready to give help when needed.
But, kampong life changed dramatically starting from the 1960s, as high-rise housing replaced villages: Today, over 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in housing board flats. And that has led to the question: Has the changing landscape irrevocably diminished the sense of community among neighbours?
WATCH: Ms Nekmah, a guardian angel for the elderly of Bedok South
Barely 10.3 per cent of the more than 7,000 households in a 2013 HDB survey indicated having any shared memories or experiences with their neighbours. This includes celebrating festivities together, raising children and sharing chores.
While some might point to people like Ms Nekmah – who was featured on a recent episode of Talking Point – as proof that the kampong spirit endures, others might note that she was one of 180 volunteers trained under South East Community Development Council’s Neighbours for Active Living - Friend a Senior Programme.
In other words: Is neighbourliness today something that has to be rallied and organised, rather than spontaneous?
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Some point to the infrastructural changes as a factor that has affected community bonds. But Mr Liu Thai-Ker, former chief architect and head of the Housing and Development Board during the major transformations in the 1970s and 1980s, pointed out: “Actually in HDB when we created the new towns and the new public housing, we cared a lot about creating community cohesion.”
“In 1960, about 3 out of every 4 persons lived in a kampong and if you moved them in a careless way, into a place which is not conducive to community cohesion, (where) they are all strangers, then they won’t feel that they have a home,” he told Talking Point.
Mr Liu, now a senior director at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, pointed to the void deck areas, playgrounds and common green spaces in HBD estates that encourage neighbours to come together.
What has affected the sense of community, said Mr William Wan, General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, is the long hours most people work. “We’re tired, we go into our home, we lock the door, we have dinner, we watch television and we forget… that we have neighbours,” he said.
WATCH: What happens when a new neighbour goes door to door to introduce herself?
Or the problem, perhaps, is with the term “kampong spirit” itself. Mr Tong Yee, co-founder of the Thought Collective social enterprise and one of the post-1965 generation, said: “The whole notion of the kampong is something that I can’t really identify with… I don’t share the same nostalgia that many of the older generation hold very deeply.”
But just because most youths can’t relate to living in a kampong, doesn’t mean they don’t understand the values of its spirit. “I do think they identify with empathy, connection, community. I do think those words are very important to them. They just may not identify with ‘kampong spirit’. If anything, it does sound a bit overbearing as an idea,” said Mr Tong.
“It’s like how our older generation might rave over Elvis Presley. I’m sure he was amazing, but I’m not sure I can connect with who Elvis was.”
SINGLISH CHARADES INTER-HOOD CONTEST, ANYONE?
Perhaps the kampong today that people can identify with, exists on another plane altogether.
In its 2013 survey, the HBD found that 66.4 per cent of residents below the age of 35 use text messaging, Internet chat and social media to interact with their neighbours. This was also the case with 57.5 per cent those aged 35 to 44.
In other words, the definition of “neighbourhood” for today’s generation is no longer just a physical location, noted Mr Tong.
“In terms of a younger person’s experience, their community is even much larger. It’s like their whole online community,” he said. “That sense of where my neighbourhood is, or where really is my sphere of influence, has gone way beyond my experience around HDB flats.”
But can online platforms really help to bond neighbours? Mr Moh Hon Meng, founder of HoodChampion, believes it can.
Competitions like this can help build neighbourhood spirit, says HoodChampion's Moh Hon Meng. (Photo: HoodChampions.sg)
He had earlier co-founded Blockpooling.sg, a website where residents could loan items to their neighbours and get to know them. That idea didn’t take off despite having more than 4,000 items listed – people were still more comfortable borrowing from a familiar face, Mr Moh said.
But thanks to site users’ feedback, he realised that people were interested in meeting others who shared the same interests. And so, the idea of HoodChampions was born.
Users can form teams to represent their neighbourhood in competitions organised by Hood Champions – for instance, the Inter-Hood Singlish Charades Competition held in April, where seven teams from seven neighborhoods competed to win S$3,000 in prize money. And coming up, on Aug 13 - an inter-hood mahjong competition.
“We thought that if it was just purely social in nature - let’s get together to go for a run - that might not be a strong enough reason for people to want to do it. So we decided to make it competitive,” said Mr Moh. “We’re thinking that perhaps then neighbourhood spirit could be built in the same way as school spirit.”
NEIGHBOURLINESS GETS EASIER
These days, WhatsApp chat groups or Facebook pages for residents in the same block or estate - sometimes created even while a Build-To-Order project is still in development - are becoming more common.
But Mr Wan feels the conversation between neighbours needs to extend beyond online platforms. “Virtual connection is better than no connection. But I’d like to see virtual connection translated into physical connection as well,” he said.
Singapore Kindness Movement General Secretary William Wan says it's all about the first step.
He suggests that someone in the chat group organise a meet-up over coffee, so that members can put a face to the name. Indeed, he adds, getting to know your neighbour is all about taking that first step.
“When we get home, we see a neighbour in the elevator, in the corridor, at the carpark, don’t just ignore each other. Say ‘hi, good evening, how are you today?” said Mr Wan. “The next time it’ll become easier… you stop by and have a two-minute conversation, you discover that you have certain things in common, you may decide to do something together.
“And that’s how it spreads.”
Watch the full Talking Point episode, Hey Neighbour, here at toggle.sg