Neighbourliness in Singapore


The follow-up to the Sunday Times’s Hey neighbour, don’t be a stranger two weeks ago, 13 Jan 08, has been interesting.

I’ve said what I’ve had to say, so I’ll leave you with the reading, in chronological order. But I just want to make an observation: article 4 is a very pleasant surprise, simply because it is by a Malay fellow-caregiver. I hope it helps break the stereotype that caregivers are Chinese females and show that caregivers transcends racial lines too.

1) Neighbours who just can’t get along (20 Jan 08)

Jan 20, 2008
Last week, we looked at how Singaporeans barely knew their neighbours despite living beside one another for years. Here, we focus on un-neighbourly behaviour and the rising number of complaints the authorities have been dealing with
By Mavis Toh

MS PERDICHA CHEN accuses her neighbours, the Sims, of hanging cages with their loud-chirping pet birds along the common corridor from as early as 6am, and claims that the family’s dog is often unleashed.

FOUR birds kept as pets by one household have become a flash point for residents living on the eighth floor of an Hougang flat. Ms Perdicha Chen, 48, who lives opposite the Sim household, has lodged more than 20 reports with the town council, the HDB and police, and has even been to see her MP twice over the past six months.

The birds’ loud chirping, says Ms Chen, has led to many sleepless mornings as her neighbour has the habit of hanging his bird cages along the common corridor from as early as 6am.

‘When the authorities come, he would keep the cages in the house for two days and then they are back to their old ways,’ says the frustrated accounts executive who has lived there for 20 years.

Cases of neighbours bickering are becoming more common these days, say parties which have to deal with such complaints.

The HDB says that there has been an increase in feedback regarding annoyances caused by neighbours – such as noise disturbances, dripping mops and wet laundry.

MPs have also noted that more residents, unhappy with their neighbours, have approached them for help at the weekly Meet-the-People sessions.

And at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) last year, 277 sessions were conducted for disputes between neighbours. This made up just over half of the total number of mediations at the centre last year.

The year before, there were 306 disputes between neighbours.

In Aljunied GRC, MP Cynthia Phua logged 30 cases of such disputes last year, double the figure in 2006. More recently, she adds, at least two such cases have been popping up weekly.

Over at Jurong GRC, MP Halimah Yacob sees at least two cases a month.

The disputes, MPs say, range from petty issues such as the hanging of underwear and burning of joss paper along common corridors, to more serious ones such as the tossing of rubbish out of kitchen windows, with the garbage landing on neighbours’ laundry.

Of the cases heard at the CMC, 80 per cent are about noisy residents or those who hurl verbal abuse and harass their neighbours. Common corridor obstruction and dripping laundry make up the other cases.

Besides the chirping birds, Ms Chen and another neighbour, Mr Alan Ang, 56, are also annoyed with the Sims’ barking terrier. They say that the dog is often unleashed and has even run into their homes.

When approached by The Sunday Times, Mr Samuel Sim, 42, denies their complaints.

He says he owns only two birds and does not hang the cages along the corridor. His dog, he adds, is always leashed.

Mr Sim, who lives in the three-room flat with his wife, three teenage daughters and a maid, accuses his neighbours of hurling vulgarities at his family and maid.

‘They’re the ones trying to make trouble,’ says the businessman who moved in five years ago. ‘We don’t disturb them but they have nothing better to do.’

Over in Bedok, resident Chen Wen Ling, 39, is looking forward to getting away from her neighbour of 20 years. So great is the animosity between them that both sides barely exchange greetings.

The bad vibes started almost 15 years ago when her neighbour started crowding the common corridor with more than 10 pairs of shoes and up to 20 flower pots, she claims, adding that the other party refused to clear the area despite repeated requests.

The housewife says: ‘When my friend visited me, she asked if my neighbour was operating a shoe shop.’ She is moving out this September.

Such long-drawn festering disputes are common, say MPs, and leave little hope for reconciliation as the warring parties are no longer on speaking terms.

For Ms Perdicha Chen, she has taken to snapping pictures of the birds and recording their chirping to use as evidence for the police.

‘We don’t want to go to the extent of meeting them in court,’ she says. ‘I just hope they put their birds away and give everyone some peace.’

mavistoh@sph.com.sg

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2) Tidy city? It’s all down to cleaners (20 Jan 08)

Jan 20, 2008
By Jamie Ee & Samantha Eng

THIS BLOCK ON HOUGANG AVENUE 8 had random rubbish scattered next to the garbage bin. The bin cover had been removed, perhaps by someone who had been rummaging through the refuse.

SINGAPORE is clean but not because of the habits of its people. In the wee hours of two mornings, The Sunday Times trawled five precincts and saw them at their ugliest before the cleaners got started.

A used sanitary pad had been pitched out of the window of an HDB flat in Circuit Road. So, too, had a soiled baby diaper at a neighbouring block.

The stench from puddles of vomit and urine clouded lift lobbies and staircases, while cigarette butts, used tissue paper, cotton buds – and even tufts of hair – were strewn across the void decks.

The area directly beneath kitchen windows was the dirtiest. Plastic bags, apple cores, orange peel, broken eggshells: All these and more had been chucked out of the windows at night.

The cleaning brigade clears up the mess in time for the harsh light of day.

Cleaner Heriati Mohd Isa, who sweeps two blocks in Hougang Avenue 8, is especially annoyed but thinks nothing can be done.

‘I don’t understand. They have dustbins at home. Why must they throw things out of their window?’ said the exasperated 55-year-old as she swept the void deck.

Despite the ongoing keep-clean efforts of town councils, cleaners told The Sunday Times that housing estates are anything but.

They are resigned to it.

Madam Heriati said: ‘Singaporeans are too pampered. They know they can always rely on the cleaners.’

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3) LETTER: HDB should reconsider replacing ban on cats with ‘motivational’ regulations

Jan 21, 2008

I READ with amusement the article in The Sunday Times about ‘Getting to know your neighbours” with a cartoon by Miel showing a smiling lady poking her head from her flat and a cat beside her (The Sunday Times, Jan 13). The problem we face nowadays is really ‘not knowing your neighbours”. In my neighbourhood, I am fortunate to share a common concern with a few fellow residents on the plight of the community cats.

Cats are pushed to the brink by an increasing human population and decreasing tolerance. They are killed for reasons ranging from noise made during mating, defecation in ‘upstairs” common areas (usually caused by cat owners who let their cats roam out), residents’ phobia of cats, scratches on cars, etc.

Incensed by the ineffective killing of about 13,000 cats every year for more than two decades and at the public expense of more than half a million dollars annually, we decided to get our butts out of our flats and spent many evenings trapping the cats in our neighbourhood and brought them to the vet to be sterilised.

After about three years, we achieved a near 100 per cent sterilised colony of cats. We also work with the town council to help resolve complaints about cats.

Through this community work, we met fellow residents from all walks of life, of all ages and of all races. We also got to meet residents who complained about cats and residents who owned cats but were unaware of responsible pet ownership (that includes sterilisation and keeping them indoors).

We were touched by the fact that almost all the residents who complained about cats did not want killing as a solution. This was often not known to some town council property officers who assumed that engaging pest controllers to remove ‘downstairs” community cats was the solution. This naturally resulted in a recurrence of complaints. By identifying the right cause of the complaints, we could offer a solution that costs only a bottle of vinegar and a packet of camphor balls (to clear the smell of cat poo and to repel the cats).

However, the lack of HDB regulations on responsible cat ownership is a major setback to the success of a managed colony of cats. Irresponsible owners abandon cats and kittens for reasons ranging from moving house, spring cleaning and unwanted litters from unsterilised home cats.

Irresponsible owners let their cats roam freely, resulting in complaints from neighbours. Town Council officers are reluctant to speak to such owners about pet responsibility because they said that ‘HDB does not allow cats”. Referring such recalcitrant cat owners to their HDB colleagues will only result in the abandonment of these cats in the estate instead. This will only transfer the problem to the Town Council which may then blame the expanding population on caregivers like me and my fellow residents.

I appeal to the HDB to urgently reconsider replacing the ban on cats with regulations so that such irresponsible owners will be ‘motivated” by fines to keep their cats indoors and to have them sterilised. This is a win-win situation to residents in general, to caregivers and also to the property officers in the town council.

Tan Chek Wee

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4) LETTER: Community cats bring Singaporeans together – let us give ourselves a chance

Jan 23, 2008
IT WAS like a breath of fresh air when I read the article about ‘Getting to know your neighbours’ with Miel’s cartoon showing a smiling woman poking her head from her flat with an equally happy cat beside her (The Sunday Times, Jan 13). I recalled a similar picture of a woman in red feeding a group of community cats at an HDB void deck with fireworks in the background during our National Day celebrations of 2007 that came out in the National Day edition of The Straits Times.I do not recall if Miel was the artist but the picture made a strong impression on me then too. I also read the letter by Mr Tan Chek Wee, ‘HDB should reconsider replacing ban on cats with ‘motivational’ regulations’ (Online forum, Jan 21) and I realised that even though the HDB may have antiquated notions about how cats affect the neighbourhood, it is undeniable that cats and, particularly, community cats can be a great source of joy and inspiration to many in the heartlands.Community cats bring people together, as Miel’s cartoon shows. Many Singaporeans complain about them but just as many find the time and are willing to spend their own resources to take care of the many cats that we have in our neighbourhoods. Many caregivers are private individuals who come together because of their love for cats and feel that more care and attention should be given to these animals who share this Earth with us. Caregivers transcend race and stereotype.

I am a caregiver myself and hence I may have a particular bias. I readily admit that I spend much time and energy trying to give my community cats as much care as I give to my family and friends.

When community cats get into ‘trouble’ because they might have ‘transgressed’ in some way or they had unintentionally offended someone, all of us get together to solve the problem. We are as young as 14 to as old as 72. I do not ask the ‘old aunty’ who takes care of the community cats around my house her age. She said she is as old as she feels and she is a fiery one, unafraid of people who had tried to intimidate and scare her into giving up her passion of saving ‘her’ cats.

What about the cats themselves? Well they come when it’s time for dinner or breakfast and then they leave just as quietly, leaving no trace and disturbing no one. Sometimes, their notion of public property and public space may be different from ours but surely we also need to consider that we are not the only ones with a right to live and should exercise love and care when relating to them.

They live their lives and they let us live ours and one of these very long days, we hope that the HDB would really look at how small our lives are, how limited our space is and how much we really would benefit from having community cats in our houses as well as living safely in our neighbourhoods.

An indoor cat is a safe cat and a human being who takes in one community cat saves one life from extermination. One day, some of us would be able to open our doors to our neighbours and smile widely at them with our happy cats by our side. Until that day comes, we will soldier on in our quiet way, smiling with warm affection for cartoons such as Miel’s who gives us hope that our dream will come true… some time in Singapore’s future.

Jumiah Ahmad (Ms)

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