SINGAPORE: While most people happily co-exist with their neighbours in the high density housing that most people in Singapore live in, sometimes things can go wrong.
Last week, a "horror house" at Blk 55 Toa Payoh made the headlines, with residents at their wits' end because of the actions of a neighbour who sprays ashes and salt at their units and spills oil on their door step.
While such extreme behaviour is rare, comparatively minor incidents have the capacity to escalate into major disputes.
Complaints about renovations being done at the wrong time, keeping too many flower pots in the common corridor or hanging dripping-wet clothes out to dry are more common. However, there are strategies which can be employed to prevent petty squabbles from descending into something worse.
Here are four ways one can go about resolving problems with neighbours.
TALK TO THE PROBLEM-MAKERS
Trainer and author James Suresh organises an annual potluck street party for the local community in Opera Estate, and it has run for almost 19 years.
Called “The Big Makan”, Mr Suresh said it started just as a small party between families and the party grew from there.
“In private estates, you see anti-social behaviour like car owners placing their bins on the road in front of their house so as to reserve the space for their car. They don’t seem to understand that the road is a public space,” he said.
“Fortunately, this behaviour is not seen in the street where I live and I would attribute this to the annual street party we have. When we know our neighbours, we refrain from anti-social behaviour. In fact, we go out of our way to accommodate them.”
Mr Suresh said that he once faced the issue of his neighbour’s plants shedding leaves into his garden.
“I never raised the issue with him. I merely invited him to my house for a drink and when he was seated in the porch, he noticed the leaves falling into my water feature,” he added.
“Prevention is probably the best way to go. By organising get-togethers, we provide opportunities to meet and talk and once the ice is broken, there is less tendency for conflict. Once you know your neighbours, you are less likely to find fault with them or report them to the authorities.”
GET A NEUTRAL PARTY TO MEDIATE
If speaking with your problematic neighbour doesn’t work out, get a neutral party to mediate.
The Community Mediation Centre (CMC), set up 20 years ago, provides mediation service for those with social, relational or community disputes.
It puts volunteers through a two-day training programme to learn how to facilitate mediation. Among close to 160 mediators are master mediators Marcellina Giam and Ramachandran Perumal who have respectively mediated 360 and 140 cases in the last two decades.
Ms Giam looks out for common ground with her co-mediator. In most cases, there will be two mediators assigned to a case to ensure balance be it for gender, race or language.
“We don't usually get the parties into the mediation room first. They will sit outside and wait, and then we will discuss between the two co-mediators and look out for the root of the dispute. If both mediators agree, then we look at this and try to get both parties to see what the problem is.”
To establish rapport with the two disputing parties, Mr Ramachandran speaks to them in their preferred language if he knows it. This helps them to lower their barriers and defences, he said.
“I can speak five different languages. When I speak in their language, Hokkien or whatever, they start to break the ice. They’ll start to say it’s a small matter, it’s nothing big,” Mr Ramachandran said.
Even though there is familiarity with community mediation, Mr Ramachandran said that there’s still a lot of public misconception on what is involved.
“Before they come in, some of their family members will instruct them not to sign anything. I’ll tell them this is not a court and we are not judges.”
Such mediation costs S$5 for each case, paid by the applicant. The two parties can also go back to CMC for further help at no cost if it is within the first three months of mediation.
“Usually after the two hours mediation, they sign an agreement and they go out. We give them options. If someone did not abide to the terms and conditions, it's best that we don't call the police," said Ms Giam.
"We'll base [the re-mediation] on whatever you've signed and improve on it, add to it or whatever. So we give them the option of coming back instead of calling the police.”
SPEAK TO YOUR MP
Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Chong Kee Hiong said that disputes are usually the exception rather than the rule.
“In general, there is a lot of goodwill within our communities, and neighbours are friendly with one another,” he said.
“When there are disputes, we usually hear from grassroots leaders or one of or both of the parties would approach us for help at my Meet The People sessions or during my house visits.”
MPs or community leaders may also be able to get help from the relevant agencies in a quicker manner, such as in the Toa Payoh case. After a resident flagged her predicament to her MP during a block visit, repairs were made.
However, Dr William Wan from Singapore Kindness Movement urged understanding and compassion.
"As appears with the Toa Payoh case, residents who require a little bit more understanding from their neighbours might need some external assistance to be properly understood. Mental health is still misunderstood in Singapore, and the general populace might attribute some of the behaviours exhibited as aggression or deliberate vandalism," he said.
"Disputes that pose a direct danger to the residents should also be reported to the authorities. When safety is compromised, and tactful conversations go nowhere, do seek assistance from the Town Council."
Going to the courts is considered a last resort by many because it can be a long and expensive process. Still, it can be an option for those with long-standing and recurring disputes.
Neighbour disputes can be addressed at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) which started in 2015.
Lawyer Nadia Moynihan said that the CDRT can make court orders for damages or to compel people to do something.
“If the neighbour refuses to comply with the court order, the applicant can then apply for a special direction to compel the neighbour to comply with the court order. This is more useful for long standing disputes such as repeat interference by a neighbour,” she said.
To file a complaint in court, the applicant has to provide evidence such as police reports, medical reports, video recordings, audio recordings or photographs to support the complaint. Without evidence, the claim may be dismissed by the court.
It will take three to four weeks after the filing of the claim before the court fixes a pre-trial conference. After that, the court will give directions on whether the matter is fixed for a hearing or for parties to attempt mediation or counselling which, Ms Moynihan said, is usually encouraged.
While disputes and annoyances do happen, the Singapore Kindness Movement said that such incidents remain rare.
"Our stand on communal living has always been to get to know and befriend our neighbours right from the get go. ... At the end of the day, it is always more relaxing to walk home passing by smiling friends than walking past neighbours looking at you suspiciously," said Dr Wan.