Love thy neighbour

With Singa’s recent public resignation (turns out it was a “planned hoax” and this magazine has written about it) and the government’s plan of enforcing compulsory neighbour mediation law, one can’t help but question the state of our ‘friendly’ societal tolerance. How would you feel about having the law jump in to get you and your neighbour to play nice after an unresolved dispute?

As it is, we have laws for almost everything, so would having another one undermine people’s ability to solve their own problems?

Two years ago we had the curry incident between an Indian family and a PRC one, which was solved in the presence of a mediator. Although Shanmugam had to clarify that the mediator played no part in the final decision, it still caused an uproar because the solution was for the Indian family to cook curry only when the other is not at home…

In a country as small as Singapore, we all live in close proximity, which can give rise to conflicts ranging from noisy neighbour kids to people’s messy pets. This man even set fire to his neighbour’s cat because it had been pooping outside his home!

What happened to good ol’ walking over to your neighbour’s house and talking to them directly?

True, mediation is a viable alternative to litigation for small disputes that don’t involve financial or legal arrangements (unless you burn a cat!).

But it’s definitely not prudent to bring matters to court if there’s a way to get the relevant parties to come to an agreement in a calm and non-confrontational way.

Singapore’s Community Mediation Centre allows for a non-bias third-party to step forward in the event that the issue cannot be resolved by those involved.

But you’ll be surprised to know that the need for mediation is not just unique to Singapore.

In the UK, a mediation service has been seeing a higher number of referrals following cuts to legal aid funding to a variety of civil legal actions. Not surprising, since a study showed that 1 in 10 people there have already moved out due to bad neighbours – ranging from aggressive behaviour to excessive noise. The study even pointed out that this could reduce property value. One case in particular has resulted in the couple fleeing from their home after receiving constant verbal abuse by their racist neighbour!

In Hong Kong, a student did a dissertation on the need for public awareness and government support for mediation institutions.

In 2011, when Australia’s TV soap Neighbours casted an Indian family as part of the show’s ‘residents’, fans lashed out to say that it was un-Australian to have an Indian family on an all-white street.

While it may seem intrusive for the government to be involved, this approach may just work if certain parameters are drawn. At the very basic, there is a need for both parties to be committed to the sessions, and know when to seek help early, especially when both sides’ family members are caught in the crossfire.

Mediators would also have to establish a sense of trust with an impartial treatment regardless of the situation or outcome. Confidentiality is a crucial aspect since the mediator is in essence involved in people’s ‘dirty little laundry’.

More importantly, mediation certainly won’t cost as much as legal fees. A case study in the UK between a farmer and his neighbour reflects the vast difference between their litigation cost and mediation cost, which could have been avoided had they opted for mediation in the first place.

With Singapore’s increasing melting pot of culture and people, perhaps the government’s involvement and commitment in resolving on-the-ground issues between neighbours can address even more pressing social concerns such as racism and discrimination.

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