New scheme in Bukit Merah to help feuding neighbours and avoid escalation to courts

When resolving disputes, Lutheran Community Care Services gets both sides to come together and talk to community representatives. PHOTO: LUTHERAN COMMUNITY CARE SERVICES

SINGAPORE - Feuding neighbours living in Bukit Merah will be linked by a neighbourhood police centre (NPC) to a social service agency at an early stage before the dispute escalates and ends up in court.

In a new pilot scheme under Project Restore - run by social service agency Lutheran Community Care Services (LCCS) - Bukit Merah West NPC will refer neighbours at loggerheads to LCCS for help in finding a resolution. Project Restore aims to help neighbours resolve disputes by getting them to hear each other out in a neutral setting.

LCCS community manager Nigel Lee said neighbourly disputes have been an issue for some time, and the situation has likely become worse with more people working from home.

The Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) - which comes under the State Courts - saw 211 cases last year, up from 108 the year before. These include disputes between neighbours. Unlike voluntary community mediation, the tribunal can order mandatory mediation and issue orders to stop the disturbance or pay damages.

Project Restore started in 2019 and, so far, 35 cases have been referred by the State Courts to LCCS. About a third have been resolved and withdrawn from the courts.

Mr Lee said when cases escalate to court-level mechanisms like the CDRT, it is usually because those involved are unwilling to resolve the problem on their own. LCCS gets both sides to come together and talk to community representatives like grassroots leaders or HDB officers to create what it calls a "peace-making circle", where they can discuss issues and not feel judged.

Mr Lee said: "Our next step forward is to go more upstream so, before escalating to State Courts, we can intervene at an earlier stage.

"Many of the cases we take in have gone through conflict for many years, some even 10 years. The longer it is, the more challenging it is."

Since LCCS - which is located in Bukit Merah - began its pilot with Bukit Merah West NPC in February, four cases have been referred to it.

Mr Lee said 42 per cent of cases referred to LCCS involve noise issues.

LCCS is a small outfit with about 20 staff, he said, but it hopes to take in more cases. It also plans to work with grassroots leaders or anyone interested to learn restorative practices - an intervention technique focusing on guided conversations.

Mr R. Ahmad, 57, who declined to give his full name, said LCCS' way of bringing everyone together worked for his mother and her neighbours.

His mother, now 87, had a dispute with her neighbours in 2019. She said they made too much noise while she was praying, and she lodged a police report.

Of LCCS' help, Mr Ahmad said: "It was a very neutral setting where everyone was relaxed and sat down to voice their matters and differences. If not for LCCS, it would be more difficult for the two sides to meet."

During the one-hour session, the neighbours said they would try to minimise the noise. There have not been problems since, said Mr Ahmad, who is a director at a coal-trading company.

Ms Low Lih Jeng, a former district judge who has dealt with neighbourly disputes, said that for issues to be resolved, the two sides must listen to each other.

The courts should not be the first port of call - rather, go to community leaders or mediation centres to resolve it, added Ms Low, who is now a senior consultant at private mediation firm Sage Mediation.

"It can be the simplest complaint but if people are not listening and are fixated in their own ways, it cannot be resolved," said Ms Low, adding that through mediation, neighbours can be encouraged to listen and find a way to live together.

Ms Low Lih Jeng will be talking about her experience managing neighbourly disputes in a live session on LCCS' Facebook page on Friday (July 23) at 7.30pm. This is part of the LCCS REALink! campaign, which involves a series of talks on topics of interest.

Correction note: This article has been edited to reflect the correct surname of Ms Low Lih Jeng. We are sorry for the error.

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