William Wan

It's time to update the kampung spirit

The vertical kampung means dense populations living with many new neighbours who are mostly strangers, not friends.
The vertical kampung means dense populations living with many new neighbours who are mostly strangers, not friends.ST FILE PHOTO

For quite some time now, we in Singapore have bemoaned the loss of neighbourliness - the kampung spirit - in our communities, and have argued passionately for its revival. Unfortunately, unless there is a collective will to do something about it, the kampung spirit, now highly endangered, is likely to become extinct, just like the kampungs after which many areas of Singapore have been named.

Our original kampung were made up of families and extended families, working together to survive and, sometimes, prosper. The men worked together in nearby plantations. The women spent their days together in the kampung, and so did the children. If they worked elsewhere, the men and women would return in the evening, and the kampung would come together for meals and for entertainment.

This constant engagement and interaction was the foundation of the kampung spirit. Residents were not just neighbours. They were friends, and even family.

Singapore society has evolved from the traditional kampung to the vertical kampung. Apartment living means dense populations living with many new neighbours.

But they are mostly strangers, not friends. We don't interact much anymore, nor do we depend on one another for survival. Modern convenience comes with a mortgage, and now more women are working. When we return home, most choose to retire to the privacy and comfort of our padlocked homes.

The decline of neighbourliness across the world follows a similar pattern. Dual-income families, the individualisation of leisure and entertainment, dense city living, greater physical mobility brought about by better public and private transport, and growing disparity in incomes, are all factors that have made neighbours more insular and less connected to one another.

It's time to update our idea of the kampung spirit with a simpler notion of neighbourliness.

Neighbourliness is, at its core, recognising that people who live near and around us form a community of potential friends and "family by proximity". It widens our traditional definition of community to go beyond kinship, nationality, race or social group such as work or school ties.

Neighbourliness reaches out to embrace people next door. It begins with the will or desire to connect with our neighbours. The need for neighbourliness is made even more urgent by dwindling family sizes, long hours at work and increased work-related travel.

As traditional kinship support weakens, and as our population ages, we need to build bonding communities in which people living near one another are able to give and receive help when needed. It must start with a recognition that we are mutually dependent on those who live around us.

An attitude of being considerate towards the feelings of our neighbours, and being responsive to their needs, will give us the right perspective to begin this journey towards good neighbourliness.

Despite living in vertical silos, we are not alone, for we do have a community in our neighbours - they are friends in waiting.

When neighbours become friends, we create a more pleasant neighbourhood. Offering assistance and watching out for one another quickly becomes a social norm. Even where misunderstanding arises, the road to a friendly resolution is more likely when we have positive memories of friendship to recollect.

This spirit of neighbourliness will demand more from us.

Being neighbourly no longer happens naturally as a result of living and labouring together in a traditional kampung. Instead, we have to consciously choose to reach out and engage our immediate neighbours. We have to create and take advantage of opportunities to nurture relationships with them, step outside our comfort zones and take that tentative first step to make friends.

When one of my friends first moved into a new neighbourhood, her immediate neighbours came by with a tray of snacks to introduce themselves and welcome her to the neighbourhood. When they went to the market, they would "da pao" (take away) something for her as well. Every few days, my friend would receive some sort of treat - souvenirs from a holiday, or doughnuts from a store.

It made my friend uncomfortable at first. She never asked for any of those things. Nor did her neighbours ever ask if she wanted those little gestures. I asked if she had ever expressed to her neighbours that their generosity was making her uncomfortable.

"No lah! So paiseh (embarrassing). But now I always have to remember to get them something in return."

A few months later, I learnt that she had settled in nicely in her new neighbourhood. When she cooked or baked, she would always set aside a portion for her neighbours. When either of them went away on vacation, the other would take care of their pets and plants.

Today, they are good neighbours and fast friends, but they could just as easily have been strangers who lived next to each other. It took the persistence of giving and the grace of accepting for the happy neighbourly situation to materialise.

The key to this new neighbourliness is the connector, the person who takes the initiative out of goodwill and the desire to be a good neighbour to another.

For Singapore to become the kind and gracious society that we desire, we have to start at home. Being good neighbours to the people next door is the perfect first step.


The writer is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.