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Living together – separately

April 3, 2012 - 7:09pm

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On Saturday morning I found myself walking around a Jurong West precinct looking to interview residents.

A gruesome murder had taken place, and I joined the reporting team on the ground to see if we could unearth more about the woman who had been knifed to death by her lover and whose body parts had been thrown unceremoniously out of the window.

Such a horrific crime, I thought, and people must be reacting with horror and sadness at losing a neighbour.

But no, the reply that came back to me again and again was that many of the residents in the block knew nothing of the couple.

One man I met on the 12th floor told me rather grumpily that he had exchanged nary a greeting with his neighbour despite having lived there for years now.

Their flats are adjacent to each other. Fewer than three footsteps separate their doorways. He doesn’t know his neighbours upstairs or on the other side of the corridor either.

It used to be different, he groused. Back in the kampung, everyone knew and had a friendly word for each other, he told his grandkids, making sure I was within earshot.

I decided to poll some friends in the evening, asking if they know their neighbours. I don’t know if it’s people in my age group, my peers or simply the company I keep (sorry, mates, you know I do love you right?) but none of them admits to knowing his or her neighbours well.

My apartment shares a lift landing with three others, and I only know of, and have had drinks, with one family. The others are breezy hi-and-bye affairs.

It suddenly struck me that this was very different from when I was growing up with my grandpa in Circuit Road. The neighbours were almost family. Every Chinese New Year, prayer or feast day, every family gathering – which worked out to almost every weekend – the neighbours would have places at the dining table.

(Admittedly, it was a revolving-table system because it was a three-room flat with a small kitchen and we took turns eating the massive amounts of food my mum and my aunts churned out.)

I ate, had fun and got punished with the neighbour’s daughter, who is my age. (Yes, we drew on walls and were whacked for it.)

We moved out from Circuit Road more than two decades ago, but the families are still close enough to see each other at funerals.

What has changed?

Are homes now designed (no common corridors, private alcoves, private lifts) such that we are enclosed in our own spheres?

Has life become so frantic and fast-paced that we hardly bother with our neighbours and go straight home?

Could this be one reason behind the social fractures we are beginning to see online?

Last week, just as one student was punished for insensitive online comments, another waded into an already growing storm of controversy by tweeting a derogatory remark about Indians. This, coming on the heels of other xenophobic slurs made in the last year.

They were isolated incidents, admittedly, but I am not alone in feeling that something may be going awry when they come so fast and furious. Maybe there would be fewer offensive sentiments if we knew our fellow residents better, never mind their different creeds, nationalities and races.

Tell us what you think.

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