Space to share: Creating common ground in a crowded and competitive space

Space to share: Creating common ground in a crowded and competitive space

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 15 June, 2023


A Singapore that stands on common ground is certainly not one where disparate groups jostle to demarcate their space or stake their place in society. Rather, it is a community that sees possibilities in shared spaces, adopting time-honoured values of respect and solidarity.

Lily Kong

President; Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. Access to a space raises questions of who owns it and who has a right to it – an increasingly common question as Singapore residents compete for space physically, virtually and psychologically in a time of great demographic shifts.
  2. To ensure there is common ground and social cohesion, Singapore needs to encourage ground-up intercommunal initiatives, bring down barriers to improve room for growth for those marginalised by Singapore’s success story, find ways of bridging local and migrant communities, address a widening digital divide and the younger generation, and otherwise build intergenerational bonds. 

Last Updated: 31 July, 2023

Did you know that when you use a packet of tissue to reserve or “chope” a vacant table at the foodcourt, you are doing what villagers used to do to mark ownership? It was a common practice for villagers to use trees, rocks, or rivers to mark the space and say “this land is mine.”

Though the villages (kampongs in Malay) are now replaced by high-rise homes, no one questions the claims to space ownership using these markers in modern Singapore’s eating places. Few people remove these little items which are meant to indicate: “This spot is taken.”

“But are all physical space conflicts in Singapore so readily managed or avoided? Are there subliminal tensions that are not even acknowledged?” This was the thought-provoking question posed by Professor Lily Kong, the President of Singapore Management University, at the SOKA Gakai Singapore Peace Lecture at the Punggol SOKA Centre on 29 May 2023.

The speech was entitled “Standing on Common Ground – Space and Community in Singapore.” Prof Kong spoke on how, in an increasingly crowded and competitive world, it can be challenging to find common ground and build a sense of community – and how to forge common ground amidst the challenges in and around Singapore.

The community needs to promote a culture of respect across different social groups, and grow digital connectedness among seniors, says Prof Lily Kong.

A geographer’s perspective

Prof Kong is a geographer who has studied intercommunal relations. Amongst other publications, she has co-authored the book Religion and Space: Competition, Conflict and Violence in the Contemporary World. Her work has delved into how spaces– and the contestation for them –   provide a lens to the multiple dimensions of competition in Singapore. 

This space includes physical, virtual, and psychological spaces. How spaces are experienced raise questions about accessibility and ownership. Despite the Singapore success story, some people feel that life here is “Standing Room Only”, both physically, and metaphorically. This can be a stark and unchanging reality for various sections of the community who are late to the starting point, less well-resourced, or going through a bad season in their lives.

Physical space conflicts

When conflicts arise, she observed, the questions asked are: “Which spaces belong to or are deemed exclusive to a group? How should such rights of access or ownership be expressed?  Can they be shared amicably? How are inter and intra-group relations impacted by such rights, perceived or otherwise? ”Some examples of such disagreements over physical spaces include those about the preservation of heritage versus modernity. Those close to Singaporeans’ hearts include the recent debate over the clearing of Dover Forest for housing projects, the demolition of the old National Library Building for the construction of Fort Canning tunnel and the redevelopment of Bukit Brown Cemetery into a highway to ease congestion. Such urban spatial conflicts are a reflection of misaligned value systems in society about what matters.

Widening chasm in the virtual space

With an internet penetration rate of 96.9 per cent, Singapore residents may spend more time in virtual spaces than physical spaces on any given day. But the internet is a divided space, with a  widening digital divide between seniors and the younger generation.

While Gen Zs switch easily between Discord, TikTok, Twitter or Instagram, older adults may still be adapting to e-commerce platforms. Compounding this are the echo chambers that reflect and reinforce only certain views, shutting out or putting down other opinions, leading to a digital tribalism that threatens social foundations.

Migration and competition

Another source of physical and psychological pressure on space is migration. One in three marriages registered here is cross national and may also be cross ethnic; one in five Singapore households depend on a live-in foreign domestic worker. This can give rise to an “us versus them” mentality, Prof Kong noted, and breed xenophobia as people feel the need to compete for coveted jobs and schools.

As “kiasu-ism” or “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) drive parents to lose sleep over how to get their children into elite schools, there are real concerns that among the have-nots, that they cannot secure safe and equitable space no matter how hard they work, she observed. The result can threaten social stability.

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Government efforts to remove “territorial markers”

Removing the packet of tissue or tree that are proverbial markers of territory is vital to bring down the barriers for an integrated and inclusive society, she said.

“Opportunities must be created for people of different socio-economic status, of different races and religions, migrants and local communities, digital haves and have-nots and intergenerational groups to thrive,” she observed. “Attention must also be given to those struggling to find wiggle room for their aspirations.”

Prof Kong went on to discuss the various government initiatives, grassroots and community efforts that might reduce distance and difference and improve integration and inclusivity.

For example, the government has implemented redistributive and inclusive budget policies to mitigate the distance caused by income and social inequalities. Programmes such as SkillsFuture and the Progressive Wage Model help to expand career opportunities and uplift workers. Forward Singapore, - with its six pillars of Empower, Equip, Care, Build, Steward, and Unite - strives to refresh the social compact and create a level playing field for all. 

Another example is HDB grants that are given to couples who purchase flats close to their parents to foster inter-generational bonds and strengthen familial support networks. Since 2018, the HDB has also co-located childcare and eldercare services in a shared space to foster understanding across different age groups. The National Integration Council also facilitates the integration of migrants within the local community.

From the grassroots

But the government alone cannot change the situation, she emphasised. At the community level, Prof Kong said, we need to encourage ground-up intercommunal initiatives, encourage understanding, empathy and connectedness with those with disabilities , and grow digital connectedness among seniors.

Prof Kong cited the example of the work of Racial and Religious Harmony Circles, established within every housing constituency, as examples. “When a secular school and a madrasah get together, and work to bring their students onto the play fields together, that opens doors to hearts and minds,” she shared.  “When neighbours organise football nights together, sharing cheers and disappointments as favourite teams bond supporters across age, race, gender and religion, bridging ties are cultivated.”

For groups that are often overlooked in society, there is a need to engage with the broader community to better understand and perhaps inhabit, albeit momentarily, the minds of a person who is disadvantaged.

An example is how MINDs (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) recently launched a set of books with localised versions of Key Word Sign, a gestures-based communication system for those with speaking difficulties. Members of the public can access these books, other than caregivers and professionals working with the disabled. 

Volunteering is vital and she highlighted Project H.O.P.E., by a group of SMU student volunteers. “It supports the homeless population in Singapore through outreach efforts to rough sleepers, providing food, hygiene kits, and clothing, and facilitating access to social services and support networks.”

Shining a spotlight on getting the elderly to stay digitally connected to the larger – and younger population – she said: “If we characterise the COVID-19 pandemic as a time of war, how can we extend the benefits of digital connectedness during war time to peace time as well?”

Countering divisiveness

As individuals, instead of promoting echo chambers and cancel culture, she asked, what can we do to cultivate social media platforms for respectful dialogue, to hear and appreciate alternative perspectives and other truths?

“A Singapore that stands on common ground is certainly not one where disparate groups jostle to demarcate their space or stake their place in society,” she shared.  “Rather, it is a community that sees possibilities in shared spaces, adopting time-honoured values of respect and solidarity.

Prof Kong ended her speech with this challenge: “The next time you’re lunching at the hawker centre, have a look around – remove your tissue pack and invite that solitary diner looking for a space to share the extra seat at your table.”

After her lecture, SMU President Professor Lily Kong also participated in a lively discussion with questions from the 400-strong audience, it was moderated by Professor Leo Tan, the Chairman of the Garden City Fund.

The questions they asked included: Was there more tolerance rather than harmony in the context of race and religion in Singapore? How can one live and thrive in an increasingly crowded space? How can Singapore be inclusive and build diversity in an age of increased immigration? How can we foster a more positive mindset despite negativity? How can we bring back the kampong spirit?

Prof Kong shared the encouragement to view possibilities instead of limitations: that even when one feels that the physical space is “crowded,” one can still create psychological space for oneself. “It means building a space in which you can do good for society to make a positive difference,” she said. “This is creating positive psychological space.”

“Being part of a group is about building bonds with other people and contributing towards something together. It’s true whether you are talking about a workplace or a country. If you and your colleagues feel a sense of ownership, a sense of community that you are working toward a shared purpose you feel a greater sense of commitment, and you are more likely to stay together.”

She also drew on her experience as a university don to share the value of diversity in the classroom. “When we are used to a certain way of doing things, learning from others from a different perspective can be very enriching. A lot of learning takes place between peers and hearing from someone from another context enables students to learn better.”

Referring to a generation of graduates who studied at the University of Malaya when Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia as an example, Prof Kong said: “They often cited how ‘we went to university together’. Years later, when they served as a minister or a permanent secretary, or as two business leaders, across the Causeway, they could just pick up the phone and speak in person to resolve issues rather than write formally. The bond they had built at university was social capital for Singapore. In the long run, from a macro perspective, diversity has helped both nations in a positive way.”

Finally, to a lively debate on whether we can bring back the old kampong spirit, she suggested looking at technology to create human connection.

“We are all familiar with hawkers who remember what we like – a little chilli with lots of bean sprouts in our food,” she said, “Or who notices if an uncle (term of respect for an elderly gentleman) who doesn’t buy from a stall for a few days and wonder if he is ill.”

“So, I asked Grab if their food delivery app is disrupting social bonds between hawkers and customers. And they replied that they would try to replicate that virtually. That’s a real challenge – we are unlikely to go back to the old kampong days but we can learn how to use technology to personalise our interactions with people around us. Ultimately, though, there is a limit. Human interaction cannot be completely replaced.”

[Featured image: A member of the audience posing a question to Prof Lily Kong at the SOKA Gakai Singapore Peace Lecture at the Punggol SOKA Centre on 29 May 2023.]

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