Creating a Liveable Singapore: Kampong Spirit 2.0

Feb 23, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Hits: 3672

By Jason Tey Shou Heng

One feature of a great, sustainable liveable city is robust neighbourhoods, where the community is inclusive and everyone plays a role in making the place vibrant and safe. How can we encourage such a culture? One way would be through getting members of the community to pool their resources for maximum efficiency and benefit.

We are already seeing resource-pooling in the sharing economy — we have car or ride-sharing, apartment-sharing and co-working spaces. Some commentators though lament that there is a dark side to this sharing economy — it is highly transactional and may shift risks from companies to workers, depressing their wages and stripping them of protection.

Can sharing in the neighbourhood avoid this dark side and instead truly promote strong social networks? The kampong spirit of old Singapore suggests it is possible. In the kampong, the way of life was shaped by the gotong royong spirit of communal cooperation. For instance, there was the practice of tumpang (Malay for “hitch a ride”) where neighbours going in the same direction would share rides, way before the ride-sharing service Uber sprung up.

While there has been much nostalgia for the old kampong spirit, we have moved on from that way of life. We need to revive the kampong spirit but also upgrade it for the present day — a Kampong Spirit 2.0 if you will. Here are some suggestions my peers and I came up with during the Association of Public Affairs (APA) Think Future Policy Forum series held in July 2016.

Solidarity Kampong Economy

First, we can promote the growth of the “solidarity economy”, a concept that originated from Latin America in the 1980s that promotes self-autonomous localised co-operatives. In this self-autonomous economy, each and every worker has a say and stake in the operations, and shares the profits of their economic production.

What this means in the local context is that each housing estate can have their own production of vegetables from vertical farms, provision of security services, and even medical services and other day-to-day service-based amenities. Residents participating in these local economies will have a share in the profits. This localised economy also has the potential to encourage “garage start-ups”. Within the confines of an HDB precinct, like-minded neighbours can band together to innovate and organise small-scale pilot implementations in the neighbourhood and even attract venture capitalists.

On the social front, this localised economic structure also promotes community (re)employment. It means that after older workers retire from their “city-centre” jobs, they can find meaningful work back in their retirement community. This encourages self-reliance and deepens the sense of ownership they feel towards their home and community.

Singapore Household and Resident’s Very Intelligent System (S.H.A.R.V.I.S)

Second, we can harness technology to promote community sharing. Our Smart Nation strategy means that smart homes — homes with electronic and household appliances that respond to remote human commands and communicate with each other — are becoming a reality. What we now need is for individual smart homes to be part of a smart housing network. What we need is a S.H.A.R.V.I.S. — Singapore-Household-and-Resident’s-Very-Intelligent-System, a play on Marvel Comics’ Iron Man’s own in-house intelligence system J.A.R.V.I.S. We can have a touchscreen device about the size of a tablet with an operating system akin to Google Home, installed in every HDB unit and wired with every other S.H.A.R.V.I.S. in the block and estate.

Beyond being a communication device, S.H.A.R.V.I.S analyses each household’s unique consumption patterns and lifestyle needs to encourage resource sharing and networking opportunities. For example, with individual S.H.A.R.V.I.S connected to EZ-Link cards, private-hire apps and in-car GPS devices, the intelligent system will communicate with one another internally and suggest car-pooling opportunities within the community for residents taking similar trips as part of their daily commute.

The solidarity economy can also be enhanced with the assistance of S.H.A.R.V.I.S, allowing aspiring entrepreneurs to connect with like-minded individuals within the same neighbourhood. In fact, having a heterogeneous pool of neighbours with varying expertise encourages creative collaborations that may bring about out-of-the-box opportunities. This is information and opportunity sharing — Inclusivity 2.0 within a highly heterogeneous community.

Heartware: An Empathetic Society

Third, we need to encourage the sharing of life stories. While the sharing of information and opportunities are critical in promoting economic benefits, it is the sharing of perspectives that truly moulds Kampong Singapore into one that is inclusive and liveable. One way to do it is through human libraries. This concept from Denmark is not new to Singapore and is already happening on an ad-hoc basis. On the national level, greater collaborations can be made between existing organisers and the government to make the programme available on a recurring schedule in public libraries. Elderly or even adults who have personally lived through past events (e.g., SARS, Asian Financial Crisis) can relate real-life incidents to bring history to life.Individuals from marginalised groups can have a platform to speak about their interests and needs. On a smaller scale, long-time residents of a community can tell the history of the town at sessions organised by the public library, to help residents develop stronger roots in their community.

Another way for rich experiences to be shared is through what my peers and I described as intergenerational institutes and inclusive infrastructure. This refers to infrastructure that provides for multiple needs in the same place, such as elder care and after-school childcare centres in one building. The proliferation of such institutes and infrastructure will be important for a truly inclusive Kampong Singapore. In the kampong of the past, the ah mah or nenek (“grandma” in Hokkien and Malay, respectively) next door would help out with babysitting if parents in the neighbourhood were busy. On top of the economies of scale provided by this arrangement, two-way education from the two groups is also made easier with the constant interaction — the elderly can teach dialects to the young kids, and the young kids can teach older folk about using technology.

Kampong Spirit 2.0 offers us an opportunity to create a diverse and resilient economy that is sustainable and affordable. We should work towards it to get a cohesive, inclusive, and (most importantly) liveable Singapore.


The writer holds a B.SocSci in Economics (Highest Distinction) from the National University of Singapore and is the Economics Society of Singapore medallist. He is a Ministry of National Development scholar currently working with the Housing and Development Board.

The Think Future Forum Report, released by the Association of Public Affairs, collected the recommendations put forth by Singaporean youths at SG100 Compass Think Future Policy Forum.

Top photo from Housing & Development Board Facebook page.


Related articles