Engaging and empowering Singaporeans can reinforce a sense of ownership in the community
By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2013
THREE years ago, I spent seven weeks in the United States on a fellowship programme meeting leaders in the non-profit and community sector.
One highlight was a visit to Boston's Dudley Street Neighbourhood Initiative (DSNI), a celebrated example of community development.
DSNI had done something remarkable: turning around a devastated neighbourhood that resembled bombed-out Beirut in the 1980s, into a thriving and engaged community today.
They did this progressively by empowering residents to organise, plan for, create and control the neighbourhood they lived in.
What can we in Singapore learn from successes like theirs?
The key ingredients for successful community building are not specific programmes or initiatives, but a process-driven approach that values and believes in people.
- First, we need strong belief in the strengths of people in the community to initiate positive action, without reliance on state help or resources from outside the community. The approach must be entirely bottom up.
The ground-up engagement promotes a sense of agency in individuals and reinforces a sense of ownership in the community.
At DSNI, every board member was made up of only residents, and staff members were only facilitators who did not make decisions on behalf of residents.
- Second, there entails genuine belief in empowerment, going well beyond consultation which does not change the power relationship. Empowerment means growing and sharing power, and passing on some control over one's own destiny. Authorities must learn to work with - not for - citizens.
For example, citizens should directly help impoverished citizens in their communities, rather than relying on government and institutional financial assistance schemes to do all the work.
There is a need to strengthen people's confidence in their own capacities and in taking action. This must arise from a community vision that is positive and not driven by anger and complaints.
- Third, good community leadership and facilitation is a requirement. Leadership should come from within the community. Outside expertise can be brought in but they should not lead.
The community organiser at DSNI who hosted me was clear that her role was merely as a facilitator. She and her colleagues were focused on putting power back to the people and empowering them to make good decisions for the benefit of all.
In Singapore, we talk about creating a society with a greater sense of togetherness. But the most we see are sporadic sparks of the kampung spirit, hardly the bonfire that we desire.
Instead, there are increasing incidents of neighbourly disputes and lower levels of trust. A silver lining, however, is a recent rise in informal volunteerism. A good example of this is the SG Haze Rescue.
This group used online platforms to mobilise community efforts to channel manpower and resources to those in Singapore that needed help most during the haze. It showed that ground-up initiatives can be even more effective than agency-driven efforts.
A kampung spirit is not simply something nice to have. Dynamic communities are critical to our personal well-being as well as social cohesion.
Reviving our kampung spirit is a key theme of Our Singapore Conversation. With more complex social challenges emerging, like ageing and families increasingly unable to be the first line of care and support, communities must step in.
For example, Singapore has some 150 psychiatrists serving 500,000 who are likely to suffer some mental health problem in their lifetime. Community support is critical to shore up mental wellness in our population.
But in Singapore, many agencies, whether from the public or people sector, do not know how to lead by stepping back. Currently, government agencies often practise consultation, but retain decision-making powers.
Government agencies are concerned about handing over ownership for many reasons. These include public pressure to act and take control, anxiety about appearing weak, and the need to be accountable to their superiors.
But this entraps citizens in an unhealthy and unsustainable dependency on a higher authority to solve all problems.
Messy inefficiency first
THERE is also a low tolerance for messiness and perceived inefficiencies. Yet, messiness and uncertainty are a necessary part of a community's growing-up process.
Developing empowered communities may be inefficient in the short run, but would be more efficient in the long run.
Imagine if solutions to neighbourhood parking woes and noise pollution were a result of community problem-solving rather than bureaucratic intervention?
For example, a special residents' task force could be formed and entrusted to decide on the permissible decibel levels in their neighbourhood and organise volunteer groups to monitor and encourage compliance.
Common problem solving is more likely to build bridges, while bureaucratic intervention tends to displease at least one party.
Political leaders have also said they would be keen to step back and to allow for communities to self-regulate.
They are, however, concerned that many Singaporeans have contradictory expectations. They want the Government to be more empowering and less intrusive. Yet when things go wrong on the ground, the first instincts are to blame the Government and expect it to fix things - a "Catch-22" situation.
Power to citizens
WHAT concrete steps can we take to develop confidence and competence in our people to take on more community ownership?
- First, we need to progressively empower people to design their future and take charge of what affects their daily lives. This includes how to design neighbourhoods, use common spaces, site facilities, restrict noise levels and other negative externalities.
We should devolve power to elect resident leaders in HDB estates to work on behalf of all residents.
Neighbourhoods should be allowed to choose their leaders, just like residents in condominiums choose their management committees.
If leaders are properly elected, rather than appointed, they would engender more trust from residents. They should be empowered to engage residents to make meaningful decisions and set rules on how their neighbourhood should evolve and be uniquely organised.
We can experiment with giving small grants for residents to invest in prototyping community solutions.
Seattle has a successful Neighbourhood Matching Fund programme which has been running for 25 years and has provided neighbourhood groups with US$49 million (S$62 million) for more than 4,000 community-driven projects to enhance their neighbourhoods.
More than resource provision, such programmes can help provide a positive sanction and impetus for residents to start initiating.
- Second, we need resident leadership programmes to develop community facilitators.
There are many process tools to learn, particularly in designing communal areas and creating the space for meaningful conversations. In such conversations, facilitators must start with where people are, and not where they wish the people were. Listening, in such a context, is often an under-rated competency.
But ultimately, it depends on citizens stepping forward to take on community ownership. Citizenship atrophies when it is not exercised.
On the flip side, like picking up a sport, one gets continuously better through practice. Confidence is enhanced through continuous actions and building on past successes.
In Singapore, we must stop ourselves from becoming a nation of people with pent-up angst. Sure, the Government has to step back. But, more importantly, the citizens must step forward.
When each of us starts contributing meaningfully to the communities we live in, we feel more fully citizens of this country, and it naturally becomes more of a home.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament, chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation.
By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in Singapore and the region.