By Lim Yun Hui, Associate Commentary Editor
The two-month long circuit breaker measures have erased the once familiar sights and sounds - children’s laughter and screams, couples and elderly gathering in void decks, people running and cycling. Yet, it is unlikely that such ‘normal’ state of affairs we have long taken for granted, will return anytime soon as the Singapore government has announced that the transition phase is going to take a few more months.
Neighbourhoods that were once filled with activities and energy have quieten down. As common areas remain empty, have Singapore’s vibrant communities and neighbourhoods similarly died down?
The Convergence spoke to two Singaporeans heading community initiatives to gather their views on how Covid-19 and the circuit breaker has impacted life in communities.
The Silver Linings
Before Covid-19 struck, co-founder of Friendzone.sg (Friendzone), Ms Grace Ann Chua, hosted gatherings in neighbourhoods for young adults to connect over meaningful conversation. These meet-ups, usually consisting of 25 participants, were held in accessible neighbourhood spaces like HDB pavilions.
Ms Chua explained that Friendzone as a social enterprise designs and hosts community building experiences among youths. “(It) offers opportunities for youths to meet and exchange perspectives that builds trust and encourages future exchange,” said the 26 year-old.
However, during the circuit breaker, physical meet-ups were axed. This did not stop her team from carrying out Friendzone’s mission online. Ms Chua shared that the greatest benefit of turning to online platforms has been the ability to scale up Friendzone’s events and impact.
Within the first 3 weeks of circuit breaker, Friendzone organised 18 virtual meet-ups that covered most neighbourhoods across Singapore. Before the circuit breaker, they had only been able to hold events in 3 neighbourhoods due to the high logistical, manpower and marketing costs.
Similarly, another community-centric initiative SG Assist - a mobile application that connects volunteers and beneficiaries in the same neighbourhood, has seen a surge in volunteers during the circuit breaker period.
Its co-founder and Chief Operation Officer, Mr Adrian Tan, expressed disappointment over the cancellation of previously planned physical programmes, but he was glad that there was now a stronger commitment on community care.
The circuit breaker had brought to light the plight of vulnerable populations within Singapore. In just two months, AWARE announced on their social media pages that calls related to domestic violence had reached 1215, the highest recorded in the hotline’s 29 year history.
“More than ever, (because of the COVID-19 situation) Singaporeans are now realising just how many people need help,” said Mr Tan.
Many social service workers in professional agencies and non profit organisations have raised their concerns to the government and appealed to the public for help. Calls for more funding, volunteers and in-kind donations have been met with an equally resounding response from Singapore society.
For example, Giving.sg received a record $13.6m in donations for April, reflecting the Singaporean spirit of compassion and willingness to extend a helping hand to those in need.
The current dire situation has indeed awakened a sense of compassion and kindness among Singaporean society. But, have we always been this way?
A Rekindled Kampung Spirit
Just two years ago, a Channel News Asia commentary by local author Ms Josephine Chia, revealed that many Singaporeans longed for the sense of community and resilience once shared in a kampung. While life was filled with hardships back then and many people remained poor, they were nevertheless rich in spirit.
Today, many Singaporeans are able to afford comfortable lifestyles. Yet, many have noticed the lack of virtuousness, compassion, neighbourliness, civic-mindedness and kindness. The lack of these qualities are perhaps what stops us from being a ‘first world country with first world citizens’.
However, both Ms Chua and Mr Tan who spearhead community-centric initiatives, think otherwise. Indeed, Singaporeans may seem cold at first, but when provided with opportunities to interact, they are more open and friendlier towards others.
“We don’t feel the warmth of Singaporeans sometimes because we don’t know each other well. But the moment we connect two strangers, provide them with information that this person stays near you and needs your help, the ice is broken and a bridge is easily formed,” said Mr Tan.
Mr Tan, was referring to how his mobile application SG Assist, provides real time and location specific information on calls for assistance. Utilising GPS technology, a notification will pop up on the volunteer’s phone whenever a beneficiary in their neighbourhood requests for help. There are all sorts of requests from helping an elderly ‘dabao’ food to asking neighbours to check up on one’s parents that live far away.
The 34 year-old had quit his previous job as a logistics specialist for Resorts World Sentosa to work on developing a mobile application for caregivers. The inspiration behind the application is closely linked to Mr Tan’s family background. His mother’s 10 year journey against breast cancer had negative repercussions as she subsequently developed post traumatic stress disorder and depression. Throughout her recovery period, she heavily depended on Mr Tan and this implicated his lifestyle as well.
He had to attend to her calls during work and often rushed home to take care of her. When it became too overwhelming to juggle both priorities at home and at work, he tried calling 995.
However, because 995 is not meant for non-medical emergencies, he had to look for solutions elsewhere. That involved asking neighbours to check-in on his mom first, while he is making his way home.
Together with fellow co-founders who experienced similar issues with their families, they created SG Assist.
It started out as a formal solution for caregivers who may not always be home to tend to the beneficiaries, thus requiring the help of neighbours. Today, it has become a large neighbourhood-volunteer network accommodating to a larger variety of requests.
The application has seen huge success thus far with 2700 users and around 2000 on-demand volunteers. Most importantly, Mr Tan notes that on average, it only took less than 5 minutes for a volunteer to respond to any uploaded request.
His experience working on SG Assist reveals that the problem is not that Singaporeans do not want to help others, but that they often do not know that others need help in the first place. By addressing this information gap, SG Assist is able to get neighbours acquainted with each other that encourage and promote further acts of kindness.
Ms Chua, who is working as a Community Partnerships Associate at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, too, feels that it is a popular misconception to think that Singaporeans do not care about their neighbours. While it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with someone new, she has discovered that openness and warmth breeds more openness and warmth.
She recounts the range of reactions she has received from attempting to strike up conversation with neighbours in the lift. Most were surprised and responded positively. A handful were bewildered. “Do I know you?,” one neighbour had replied without hesitation.
This experience stood in huge contrast to her days of living in a residential college. Before graduating from the National University of Singapore in 2016, she lived in the College of Alice and Peter Tan for 4 years. There, she was shaped, challenged, and sharpened by her experience of a close-knit and close-proximity community.
She believes that the experience of community is important for giving one clarity on their strengths and roles, and a deeper appreciation and understanding of others.
“When people move back to their HDBs after staying on campus, they do not expect to find that strong sense of community they experienced in RC or hall, back home. I don’t think that should be the case,” Ms Chua said.
The passion to recreate a vibrant experience of community and neighbourliness is what motivated her to start Friendzone with her fellow peers - to bring what she experienced on campus back to the heartlands.
Like Mr Tan’s initiative, Ms Chua hopes that with the right introduction, two strangers residing in the same flat or neighbourhood will strike up a conversation and eventually become friends. In that sense, both initiatives strive to create the right environment for meaningful connections. By providing an opportunity and platform for people to get to know or help each other, they are playing a part in making Singapore’s neighbourhoods more friendly and warm.
Beyond Covid-19: A gracious society?
In 2017, former civil servant Mr Lim Siong Guan was surprised to find that the top values young people in their 20s and early 30s wanted for Singapore were that of ‘a gracious society’ and ‘more sensitive and tolerant people’. In his previous lectures with labour movement leaders, Singaporeans in their 40s and 50s similarly expressed their wishes for a gracious Singapore.
While such desires are pleasant, it is hard to find many Singaporeans actively and consciously trying to make this little red dot a more amiable place to live in. As the saying goes - ‘old habits die hard’, many Singaporeans have never talked nor interacted with their neighbours.
Perhaps modernisation has caused us to lose the close relationships that neighbours once shared in the kampung. Nevertheless, Ms Chua remains optimistic. While she acknowledges that it is not in our culture to talk to neighbours, she wants to bring that culture back through Friendzone. To remind people how wonderful it was, and still is, to live in a community of neighbours.
‘Every human being has the capacity to be friendly and compassionate. It just boils down to the mindset we take when we meet someone we do not know. Do we take the chance to step out of our comfort zones and say hi, or do we stick to our old routines and remain distant?’ she said.
Nevertheless, the circuit breaker has presented great challenges to accomplishing this feat. Mr Tan shared that one of the main constraints preventing more people from joining SG Assist was digital illiteracy. Older folks who do not know how to use smartphones, have found it difficult to connect with their loved ones throughout this period.
As social distancing has caused many families to be physically separated, the primary way to connect now is digitally. Together with SG Assist, a group of volunteers and students have come together to create a ‘call help desk’ to teach the elderly how to use their mobile devices.
Even when people are required to stay home and abide by stringent safe distancing rules, there remain viable and fulfilling platforms for one to stay connected. Moving forward, Ms Chua and Mr Tan will continue with their community building vision.
Through fundraising, SG Assist will not only be helping low income families and seniors own a phone or tablet, they will also teach them how to use such devices confidently. As for Friendzone, they plan to increase outreach so more young adults are connected to their neighbourhood community, to achieve the aim of making friendliness the norm in Singapore.
Perhaps, the greatest thing to have come out of Covid-19 is a realisation that Singaporeans do deeply care for one another. Although it was not as strongly felt or expressed in non-crisis times, the stories of good neighbourliness shared on social media recently are evidence of a rekindled kampung spirit.
In the face of an unprecedented threat, it is crucial for us to stand united in order to tide through such trying times.
Yun Hui is a Year 4 Political Science major who is currently an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. Constantly reading up on domestic sociopolitical issues and regional affairs, she finds particular interest in the diverse and nuanced point of views presented by each writer. In another life, she hopes to be a photojournalist that gets to capture history in the making.