Helping residents connect

Ms Judy Koh, a school programme executive, has helped keep her Redhill Gardens neighbourhood crime-free and foster a sense of closeness in the estate.
Ms Judy Koh, a school programme executive, has helped keep her Redhill Gardens neighbourhood crime-free and foster a sense of closeness in the estate.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Back in the 1980s, one of Ms Judy Koh's neighbours saw someone stealing her underwear.

She called Ms Koh and another neighbour, who were part of a neighbourhood watch group for the block, for help.

"We immediately left our homes and gave chase, stopping him at a carpark three blocks away," said Ms Koh, 63, who spent more than a decade chairing the Residents' Committee (RC) for Redhill Gardens.

The group's efforts helped keep the neighbourhood crime-free, and also helped foster a sense of closeness in the estate, said Ms Koh, a school programme executive.

She hopes a new generation of grassroots leaders can find ways to connect with Singaporeans today and recreate such bonds.

RCs were introduced in 1978 to promote cohesiveness in Housing Board estates. They celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, along with neighbourhood committees (NCs), which mark 20 years of serving private estates.

Both operate under the umbrella of the People's Association (PA).

Volunteers like Ms Koh say one challenge today is getting residents to take part in RC activities.

"Now, people are engrossed with their jobs (and children)... I don't think they can spare more time to take part in RC activities. That is a challenge," she said.

 

And unlike before, when RCs could reach out to housewives who would be home during the day, in many households now, both husband and wife are working, she said.

Ms Sylvia Loh, 38, chairman of Bishan NC, highlighted the difficulty in attracting young people to NC activities.

"We realise that no matter what we do, we can't seem to get them."

While a part of the reason may be that young people are busy with their studies, she added: "I think we have to change our image as well."

"Over the years, we have done a good job. But I think the PA has to do an image revamp to make sure it is not just for seniors," she said. "It should have activities that are seen as quite young, hip and which can attract people of all ages."

To do so, Bishan NC has been making an effort to include activities that may appeal to younger people - such as laser tag - in community events, said Ms Loh.

It also started a "youth chapter" earlier this year to encourage young people aged above 12 to know their neighbours and get involved in community work.

Ms Koh noted that like many other neighbourhood divisions, Redhill Gardens now disseminates information via a Facebook group and WhatsApp chat group, rather than relying on printed newsletters.

But apart from using technology and organising large-scale events, RC members should meet people in the neighbourhood more often, she said. By sitting together, people get to know and connect with each other, she added.

Some private estates are trying to make this possible by piloting "NC Hubs", which provide a common area for residents to hang out.

The temporary space, set up for three months in an open space in the private estate, can hold activities like karaoke sessions, said Ms Loh .

"If feedback is good, we are considering having a permanent structure in our estate when it upgrades," the music company director added.

She also stressed the importance of maintaining a close relationship with residents so that the NC is in a better position to help them in times of emergency.

When the first cases of the Zika virus spread in 2016, volunteers from the NC made their rounds to inform residents of the disease and give out insect repellant, while looking out for pregnant women.

Emergencies like that revealed a gap in the system - volunteers not having household profiles readily at hand.

To close this gap, the NC started a one-off survey last year to get details of all households, collect their emergency contact details and ask what activities they would be interested in, Ms Loh said.

She hopes this will allow activities to be tailored to residents' interests as well.

"We realise that we always see familiar faces at grassroots events. They enjoy our activities. But we want to go beyond that and reach those whom we have not touched... We are trying to bring them together and organise things that are of interest to them," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2018, with the headline 'Helping residents connect'. Print Edition | Subscribe