My Turf

Filling a void deck with neighbourliness

In the Clementi West void deck (above), resident Tan Soon Nan, 78, opens a drawer full of coffee and tea packets. At Block 441, Tampines Street 43 (right), two refrigerators are placed in the lift lobby and residents can stock them with food for need
Clementi West residents Ong Chun Kiat (centre), 71, and C. F. Kong (right), 88, relax in the homey corner of the void deck at Block 601, Clementi West Street 1.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, TOH WEN LI
In the Clementi West void deck (above), resident Tan Soon Nan, 78, opens a drawer full of coffee and tea packets. At Block 441, Tampines Street 43 (right), two refrigerators are placed in the lift lobby and residents can stock them with food for need
In the Clementi West void deck (above), resident Tan Soon Nan, 78, opens a drawer full of coffee and tea packets. ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, TOH WEN LI
In the Clementi West void deck (above), resident Tan Soon Nan, 78, opens a drawer full of coffee and tea packets. At Block 441, Tampines Street 43 (right), two refrigerators are placed in the lift lobby and residents can stock them with food for need
At Block 441, Tampines Street 43 (above), two refrigerators are placed in the lift lobby and residents can stock them with food for needy neighbours. ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, TOH WEN LI

My Turf is a fortnightly series that aims to tell the untold stories in our neighbourhoods. In this instalment, we look at a communal space in Clementi West.

Linger in one of the Housing Board void decks in Clementi West Street 1 for long enough, and you might be forgiven for thinking you have entered an airy living room.

The area has a wooden table, an assortment of old deckchairs, a kettle, cabinets, and even a clock and Chinese calendar - all left by residents and used by a group of men who have made the spacious void deck their own.

Every day, the space, decked out with festive decorations, draws about 10 elderly men from the nearby blocks who sit around, read the papers and chat about life over tea, biscuits and oranges.

Retired civil servant Ng Kwee Yong, 75, who lives alone, was lounging on a deckchair when The Straits Times approached him.

Pointing to an umbrella, he said: "Someone brought an umbrella and hung it there. If it rains, and if someone wants to use it, he can take it and go. If you want to contribute something, you just put it here, for everyone to use."

There used to be more furniture, he said. "Some of the new chairs, people took them. But if they want them, let them have it."

While initiatives by residents such as this one in Clementi West are an organic, sustainable way of fostering a sense of community, some say town councils and the Government can help facilitate this.

GIVE AND TAKE

Someone brought an umbrella and hung it there. If it rains, and if someone wants to use it, he can take it and go. If you want to contribute something, you just put it here, for everyone to use.

RETIRED CIVIL SERVANT NG KWEE YONG, 75, who lives alone, on how residents contribute and enjoy the informal communal space.

In Parliament last month, Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng urged the Government to study if newer estates will have enough common spaces for "unstructured, informal interaction". This, he said, can "make the difference between a place of transit and a place of friendship and fellowship".

The Clementi West space - not a senior activity centre but certainly a place of fellowship - sprang to life quite serendipitously. But the town council did help the seniors by giving them access to a power point in the void deck, Mr Ng said. Residents use it to boil water in a kettle for coffee and tea, and lock the power point case before leaving.

Retired delivery driver Ong Chun Kiat, 71, said: "Would you rather enjoy the breeze here, or stay in an air-con room?Nowadays, our legs aren't so strong. We don't want to walk too far."

Over time, the space has become a social - and furniture - magnet. Residents who don't want their old furniture, or have snacks or fruit to spare, simply leave them there.

Three-year-old Farie Rafael, for instance, high-fives all the elderly men on his way back from nursery every day. Said Farie's grandfather, Mr Ramlan Lubis, 60: "The uncles are very relaxed, very cool."

In Jurong East Street 21, a group of elderly women meet in another windy void deck every day to talk while listening to old Hokkien songs. Latecomers perch themselves on swivel and plastic chairs, which they have secured with bicycle locks to the void deck benches.

In informal communal spaces such as these, trust is an issue residents sometimes grapple with.

In January, two refrigerators were placed in the lift lobby of Block 441, Tampines Street 43, so residents could donate food to needy neighbours. On this initiative by the Tampines North Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng told ST that "there has been a regular stream of food donations and people taking food from them".

The nearby PCF kindergarten has a community garden whose produce is sometimes added to the fridges, Mr Baey said. He is also in talks with fishing enthusiasts, who will contribute their catches.

When The Straits Times checked the fridges on Tuesday, they were all but empty. However, about 10 bags of white rice had been left next to them.

Residents said the food in the fridges disappears very quickly. One resident, retiree Ms Wee, 69, said: "Some people take practically everything, they carry loads away. But no one can stop them... You can't tell if they are needy."

But Mr Baey is optimistic. Noting that a structured programme, such as one involving coupons, might deter people from helping themselves to the food, he added: "This project was developed with the belief that there are many kind-hearted people around... We can live with the several black sheep."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'Filling a void deck with neighbourliness'. Print Edition | Subscribe