Voiding the kampung spirit?

First railings, then posters banning chess. Instead of complaining to the authorities, how about some good, old-fashioned neighbourly give and take?

Are we becoming less neighbourly? And is "kampung spirit" simply a phrase we like to bandy around but never truly embody?

I wonder, because our void decks - the shared spaces so synonymous with Housing Board living - may now sprout barriers to stop teenagers from playing football and posters banning board games.

Last month, some residents at Block 143, Mei Ling Street were puzzled when three metal railings were erected under their block. Tanjong Pagar Town Council explained that the barriers were there to stop football games, apparently after property was damaged and residents complained of noise. It stressed they could be removed for functions such as Malay weddings or Chinese funeral wakes.

News of the railings struck a raw nerve among many, who felt their void decks were being overly regulated.

One netizen declared the barred void deck a "dead space". Others pined for a time before football was disallowed in void decks.

"Playing ball with my neighbours at void decks was part of my precious childhood memories," said one. "Friendships were forged with neighbours, regardless of race or religion."

Then, just this week, Marine Parade Town Council came under fire for putting up posters at Block 11 Haig Road banning the playing of chess in common areas, including sheltered walkways and void decks.

The signs, which went up in January, were targeted at a group of draughts players. The town council and residents said the elderly men often made noise and obstructed the linkway.

The posters drew similar flak, with one Facebook user commenting: "No noisy football. Now no silent chess... We want robots."

The town council, however, later apologised for the posters and removed them.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

NOT JUST AN EMPTY SPACE

The response by residents and netizens could come across as overly emotional to a seemingly cosmetic change. After all, void decks are essentially a bare, functional area on the ground level where you wait for the lift, check your letter box or seek shelter from rain.

Indeed, one of the Oxford Dictionary definitions for "void" is "completely empty". Yet for many Singaporeans, there is absolutely nothing empty about a void deck. More than just white walls and cement floors, it is a place filled with precious memories.

I remember batting at shuttlecocks at the bottom of my block as a boy, because that was the most convenient place for a game of badminton. My father and I simply took the lift down for a friendly match, instead of going through the hassle of booking a court elsewhere.

In primary school, the "mamak shop" or sundry kiosk at the void deck of a nearby block in Clementi was the regular hangout spot for my classmates and I after the bell.

We would spend whatever remaining pocket money we had on crackers and sweets, and crowd around the toy dispenser, hoping that our desired Pokemon figurine would drop into our hands.

When my grandmother died three years ago, the void deck below her Bukit Batok block was where we bid our final goodbyes.

Tolerance and cordial communication can go much further than antagonism in resolving an issue. As long as both sides are willing to give and take, surely metal barriers, spikes and posters won't be necessary?

Over five days, the space was filled with mourners and songs. On the last night, my cousins and I shared old photos and videos of our grandmother, and we cuddled together and slept beside her coffin.

On happier occasions, my friends tied the knot at the void deck, which, for a day, was transformed into a makeshift ballroom complete with chandeliers and chiffon drapes.

VOID DECKS OVER THE YEARS

Even more than bamboo poles sticking out of windows, void decks are intrinsic to Singapore's unique public housing landscape.

When the Housing Board started building flats in the 1960s, the ground floor of most blocks was lined with residential units.

The first void deck was supposedly built in 1963, at Block 26 in Jalan Klinik in Tiong Bahru. Later, more ground floors were freed up to provide opportunities for bonding and social functions.

As local as the concept sounds, this idea was borrowed from the late Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who in the early 1900s used concrete columns to "lift" buildings off the ground, allowing for "circulation" space beneath.

Local newspapers started using the term "void deck" around 1970, although it isn't clear who first coined the term, and when.

Over time, these decks have grown less empty as facilities like bicycle racks, sundry shops and childcare centres became regular fixtures. Basic amenities, like letter boxes and public telephones, were the main features in the 1970s.

In the next decade, recreational fittings, such as ping pong tables and chess and checker tables with stools, were added. Void decks also served as polling stations for the first time in the 1980 General Election.

Some deck features have not survived. Community children's libraries were all the rage in the early 2000s, but shut when the National Library Board expanded its community branches.

Playgrounds were also a familiar sight until a fire broke out at one in Tampines in 2005. Now, they are no longer allowed in void decks for fire-safety reasons.

Aside from government initiatives, void decks have taken on a life of their own, with many residents treating them as an extension of their homes.

Today, anyone passing by a void deck can easily spot groups of elderly women chatting with plastic bags of market shopping in tow, folks clustered round a chess table, or people hoisting up cages of chirping birds.

The shady spot is also where young couples share their first kiss, and children weave around on their bicycles and skate-scooters, careful to avoid the occasional cat that is too lazy to budge from its spot.

STIFLING COMMUNITY SPIRIT

The fact that Singaporeans value void decks was underscored in 2012. Residents in Woodlands and Tanjong Rhu started petitions to protest against facilities for the elderly being built in their void decks.

They were upset that they were not consulted, and concerned it would deprive their kids of a place to play.

No wonder emotions ran high when the Mei Ling Street railings and Haig Road posters went up.

In fact, this is not the first time the authorities have introduced similar measures. Barriers had been erected in other void decks around the city before. Nails and barbed wire have even been placed on walls to prevent noisy ball games taking place.

Such measures, however well-intentioned, threaten to stifle the void deck's spirit of community. They deny residents the possibility of using the open space creatively, such as engaging in a fun, inclusive game of soccer.

As a result, railings like the ones at Mei Ling Street make the space come across as cold and unwelcoming.

As for the Haig Road posters, they send the signal that one does not have the freedom to enjoy a simple board game at the bottom of the block.

Certainly, the sound of balls slamming against walls or men shouting over checkers can be annoying for residents, especially if they last late into the night.

There are more considerate ways to enjoy such pursuits, such as going to a nearby field or community club.

But these do not come with the convenience of being just a lift ride away from one's game of checkers and soccer. For the infirm elderly who are unable to walk much, or kids who are not able to stray far without adult supervision, the common areas below the block are the ideal option.

This could be one reason why the Haig Road posters failed to achieve their objective, and ended up incurring the ire of residents.

In realising this, the town council put up new posters, this time with more measured wording that simply reminded players to be considerate.

As for the metal barriers, netizens have argued that their installation could backfire and encourage other hobbies that are equally noisy. These could include skate-boarding, parkour and pole dancing, some joked.

Others suggested replacing the barriers with more inventive structures like chess tables, benches or exercise equipment.

I agree - at least these are items that enable, rather than disable, activity in the void deck.

Of course, it can be tricky determining how these common spaces should be used when there are differing opinions.

If they are for all residents to enjoy, who should have the final say in a dispute?

For this reason, I cannot help but worry about another kind of barrier - the one between disputing neighbours.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

As can be seen in the Mei Ling Street and Haig Road incidents, many people these days do not address problems with their neighbours in person, preferring to complain to the authorities.

According to the latest HDB Household Sample Survey in 2013, most residents suffering a nuisance problem with neighbours did not take any action. Only one in 10 resolved the matter personally, while another one in 10 referred such issues to the authorities.

This begs the question: What happened to good ol' neighbourliness?

Have neighbours given up on talking to one another if the TV next door is too loud? If our neighbour tells us nicely that our football match has woken her baby, do we simply carry on playing?

A writer to The Straits Times Forum page this month said that placing tables and chairs at the Mei Ling Street void deck in lieu of railings would only encourage people to "generate more noise". This might make it even easier for "undesirable people" to gather and pose a security threat, he added.

It is such attitudes that go against the kampung spirit of openness and tolerance that we claim to possess.

While alerting the authorities can be effective, it is not always the best solution. When it comes to shared spaces, people often have conflicting interests. Use of an area cannot be based purely on a system of rules and bans.

Tolerance and cordial communication can go much further than antagonism in resolving an issue. As long as both sides are willing to give and take, surely metal barriers, spikes and posters won't be necessary?

There is another factor to consider, too.

As newer HDB blocks are built taller instead of wider, void decks are shrinking. Some have been moved to higher floors in the form of sky gardens, while others have been replaced by precinct pavilions shared by a few blocks.

The familiar, communal spaces so dear to us are no longer a guaranteed part of our heartland landscape.

It is time to start cherishing and relishing these spaces, instead of fighting over them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Voiding the kampung spirit?'. Print Edition | Subscribe