Mediators recognised for 'pivotal role' in community

In the three years that Mr Then Choon Huat mediated disputes between neighbours, he largely handled complaints involving the use of common areas and excessive noise.

But the volunteer mediator, who has handled more than 30 cases, had one baffling case last year.

The 45-year-old quantity surveyor, who helps out at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC), said a woman had filed a complaint after her neighbour smiled at her as he walked by her unit.

"She thought there were bad intentions. Although both of them did not openly quarrel, the misunderstanding between them built up over two years," he said. "I was surprised that a smile could be so misconstrued."

After a mediation was arranged, both parties sat down with Mr Then but refused to speak to each other during the two-hour session. Just before they walked out, the man's wife, who was also present, opened up. That prompted the complainant to reveal the reason for her apprehension at the smile. She was an abuse victim.

Mr Then said the sharing helped to resolve the case. "When people start to talk, they are able to understand the problems better. Empathy is important and sometimes all a person needs is just a listening ear," he said.

Mr Then was among six volunteer mediators who were reappointed at a ceremony at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre yesterday. His second three-year term with the CMC started on Aug 1.

A total of 14 new mediators across a range of professions were also appointed, while nine others received awards for their contributions to the CMC.

Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah thanked the volunteers for being "pivotal in building bridges between disputing parties".

She also highlighted the close collaboration between the CMC and the State Courts' new Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals. Judges can order neighbours to go for compulsory mediation sessions at the tribunals.

The 26 tribunal mediators, selected by the CMC from a pool of more than 150 mediators, have helped to resolve about half of the cases ordered by judges so far.

For cases that fail to be resolved at the CMC, Ms Indranee said the tribunals use video conferencing to conduct pre-trial conferences.

She said: "Without the aid of technology, parties would have to wait for three working days to appear in person before the tribunal judge for further directions on the case. Waiting time has been reduced from three days to one hour."

Said 72-year-old financial and business consultant Stephen Poh, who is a tribunal mediator and one of the oldest volunteers at the CMC: "Going to the tribunals is often a last resort, and there could be a lot of bitterness or uncertainty involved. During the mediation, we help them find a common ground and learn to trust each other."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Mediators recognised for 'pivotal role' in community'. Subscribe