Q&A: 10 Questions on Neighbourliness

I was recently interviewed for a local healthcare distribution on Wellness, to comment on the current state of affairs regarding neighbourliness in the Singaporean context.  Here's a sneak peek - see if you like my interpretation of these issues.

According to the Graciousness Survey 2017 by the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), neighbourliness is on the decline here. Compared to last year, people are less inclined to say hello, have a conversation or reach out  less to their neighbours, they don't talk as much to their neighbours and fewer people want to be neighbourly. In addition, more people want to maintain their privacy. But with smaller family units and more elderly people living alone, a strong ‘kampung spirit’ between neighbours will become more important to helping build more resilient communities of support. Lifewise looks at how we can foster neighbourliness in our urban environments.  

1.    What are some of the possible reasons as to why there is a decline in neighbourliness? What causes these so-called ‘anti-social’ behaviours?

A decline in neighbourliness is commonly attributed to self-centredness, guardedness, and a culture of “kiasuism” (a “me first” attitude) that leads to self-preservation.  However, we need to account for the context of the Singapore environment we live in. 

Living in a stressful environment, many individuals are pushed to deal with immediate daily stressors such as work, family or quality of life.  For most Singaporeans living and working in close proximity with others one might want, or need, to retreat into the privacy of their own lives at the end of the day by dedicating personal time. 

We also live in a digital age where we are constantly bombarded with information. An unprecedented use of mobile devices also means many of us are insulate from interacting with others.

We may inadvertently become ‘anti-social’ because of our need for self-preservation, personal space, and an over-reliance on mobile devices to deal with our interpersonal issues. For example, many of us prefer texting over making phonecalls, which may encourage interpersonal avoidance and disconnection.  This could especially be the case for persons who are anxious, or fearful of potential conflict.

2.    Why is there an increasing trend of people valuing their privacy more?

If we consider our natural fight or flight responses to psychological threats, valuing our privacy may not seem so unreasonable.

For instance, if we feel increasingly insecure or that our personal space has been invaded, self-preservation or personal protection of what’s deemed as precious to us may be a valid response. 

Furthermore, if we are made to feel like we have no say or control over what impacts us, this may create immense internal tension, which may again trigger a need to retreat into ourselves and protect what is ours.

3.    Do you think these trends are normal at Singapore's stage of development? 

I think these trends are in some way inevitable, given how quickly we have progressed as a nation.  We may have been so focused on making ends meet, economic achievements and progress, such that we ignore the little things that matter – this is to an extent the price of modernity.

4.    How mutually exclusive are the concepts of privacy and community?

These two concepts can certainly co-exist - if we perceive that we can maintain our own personal privacy without hindrance, there may be less of a need to further disconnect from others, or be self-centred.  This may encourage more participation in shared community activities.  

5.    How do these trends compare with findings in other cities in Asia as well as in the west?

News reports in November 2012 by CNN citing “Wealthy Singapore as world’s most Stoic Nation”, and Time Magazine describing Singaporeans as “The World’s Least Emotional People”, we have much to reflect on.  Whilst highly controversial and criticised by many at home, these polls may provide some insight into our country as a whole.  We are placed among other countries like those in the Soviet Union, and Americans, Canadians, Peruvians and Costa Ricans (Source: Time).  A possible similarity may be found close by in Hong Kong, where its citizens live in close-quarters where personal space is at its premium. 

6.    In general, what are the drawbacks of a decline in neighbourliness?

There may be an inadvertent lack of consideration for others, a less cohesive community spirit and lower civic mindedness.  If one may require assistance one day, your perception of civic dependability may also be low, and lead to increased self-reliance. 

7.    Is community important from a mental health perspective? Why?

Being a part of a safe and supportive community can nurture greater feelings of security, reduce the effects of stress and lessen our perceived need to retreat into our private spaces.

We know that social support is an important protective factor to develop mental resilience. Many mental health issues can stem from social withdrawal, and may lead to over self-reliance. 

A common misconception is that self-reliance equates to independence.  Rather, self-reliance stems from mistrust or an inability to approach others for help in times of need.  In contrast, independence is associated with a healthy self-esteem which recognises personal limitations – that everyone has – as well as being confident enough to ask and receive help where needed.

Without social support from family, friends or colleagues, we may find that our problems are amplified or become insurmountable. A spirit of community may assist to alleviate that burden. 

8.    Can online communities replace face-to-face communities from a mental health perspective? Why or why not?

In my view, online communities can provide useful information, raise awareness for certain issues or provide a sense of belonging for individuals who have similar experiences. But these can never replace the human touch and face-to-face communication.  We are all hardwired for human connection, so by disconnecting from others, we may inadvertently reinforce the overt need for privacy and prevent us receiving potential rewarding interaction with others. 

9.    What can be done to make people more community oriented? Can you provide us some tips on how to revitalise our kampung spirit?

Imparting a sense of neighbourliness begins at home. 

Parents and caregivers will have to lead by example - disconnect from their devices, and encourage community connection. Teaching the next generation the value of community and connectedness can nurture values of generosity and kindness, which are aspects important for ‘neighbourliness’. Encourage taking part in team activities, and events that facilitate cooperating with others, instead of solitary activities. Exercising good manners and small acts of kindness can go a long way to encourage a stronger sense of community. 

10.    What would you say to persuade someone that it is in their personal interest to have closer ties with their neighbours?

I would encourage instead of ‘persuade’ someone of its benefits.  A simple guide is to treat others how we wish to be treated.   Everyone needs some encouragement from time to time. If we can learn to empathise with our fellow man, and imagine how it might feel in someone else’s shoes, we may encourage self-realisation, and subsequently action. 

Imagine how it might feel like to receive a friendly ‘good morning’ or kind gesture from someone at the start of the day. Now consider that you have the ability to have a positive impact on others by doing the same.  

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