Of Noisy Neighbours and Silent Nights

SINGAPORE is a small and densely populated city-state with an average of over 7,000 residents in each square kilometre of land. More than 80 per cent of us dwell in Housing Board flats of close proximity to each other. We do not have the luxury of land buffers or setback distances from each other.

Not surprisingly, the ambient noise is greater than 55 decibels as compared with 40 to 50 decibels in Europe.  Again, not surprisingly, of the estimated 70,000 complaints made each year to various government agencies, most of them are about excessive noise. The Straits Times recently reported that nearly 80 neighbour disputes had been brought before the Community Dispute Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) since it began operations in October last year. Of these, almost 70 per cent were conflicts over noise levels.

However, noise cannot be avoided completely as we become more urbanised and densely populated. Living in such close proximity to one another invariably means that the noise we create in our own homes tends to waft over into the homes of our neighbours, often to their great discomfort.

But unwelcome noise can be reduced by simply being more considerate and thoughtful to our neighbours. It does not take much to understand why noise might be such an issue, its negative effects on people and what we can do to minimize it.

OUR HOME, OUR SANCTUARY

One key reason that noise in the neighbourhood irks us is that, in many other countries, people seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life can and do take their breaks in the quiet countryside. In Singapore, however, we lack such a rural hinterland to which we can escape.

Our home is about the only private place of retreat for most of us. It is our inner sanctum, a safe space to unwind, to hide from the rest of the world, and spend quality time with loved ones without being interrupted by disturbances from outside.

Naturally, we balk at the idea of having our sanctuary invaded by unwanted noise that forcibly drags us back to the noise-filled hustle and bustle world we wish to avoid for a while. To those of us who need the sound of silence to relax and reflect after a hard day’s work, noise is a proxy intruder that relentlessly invades our privacy.

NOISE CAN HAVE ADVERSE EFFECTS ON HEALTH

The detrimental effects of noise on human health have been well-studied and documented, lending justification to the term “noise pollution”. In 2014, a study published in medical journal The Lancet found that noise pollution can cause a number of ill effects, such as annoyance, increased stress levels, and sleep loss. The effects of sleep deprivation are certainly well-known, ranging from irritability and inability to function the following day, to greater susceptibility to illnesses including cardiovascular diseases. There is also evidence that exposure to unwanted noise can reduce the functional level of our immunity system.

ADVERSARIAL DISPUTE RESOLUTION

A friend of mine, a self-professed karaoke king, once proudly declared that his neighbours get to listen to some great music all day, whether they like it or not. To their relief, he has since desisted. Personally, I think, as wonderful as our singing might be, not everyone appreciates an Adele or Frank Sinatra wannabe next door.  What is music to our ears may be annoying noise to another.

We do have dispute resolution mechanisms in place to resolve noise spats in neighbourhoods. including CDRT. But resorting to tribunals should always be the last recourse.  Given that the tribunal process is adversarial, it tends to exacerbate ill feelings between the parties involved, souring relations between people who still see each other every day.

I recall the case of a lady who filed a claim against her karaoke-singing neighbours, where the tribunal had to order both parties not to stare or make abusive comments at each other when they meet in future, to prevent potential hostilities. Surely, this is not a positive relation we want to maintain with our neighbours.

KINDNESS, CONSIDERATION AND EMPATHY

Consider your own reactions when your neighbors turn up the bass-heavy stereo system and TV, move furniture in the middle of the night, drill and hammer away at odd hours, play musical instruments in the wee hours of the morning, host parties/gatherings and play mahjong throughout the night, and more. If you do not like it, then do not do to others what you do not want others to do to it.

Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays with house parties is within our rights, of course. But, we also need to realize how much noise we and guests can generate to the annoyance of our neighbours. While we are enjoying our special occasion, we need to be thoughtful of our neighborhoods who are having difficulties trying to sleep after a hard day’s work.

If we schedule repair work on our properties which entails drilling and other noise-emitting activities, letting neighbours know in advance would be a thoughtful thing to do. Most people appreciate the courtesy and would be less likely to complain. Given the heads-up, they can also get away from the noise if they really need to.

Kindness, consideration and empathy means that we stand in the shoes of others to understand their needs. To understand is also to anticipate the potential negative impact and to minimize inconveniencing our neighbours, if we can help it.

Start by respecting silent hours.

I have no doubts that almost all of us are reasonable neighbours who respect the ‘give and take’ that comes with everyday-life in the neighbourhood. But in order to take, we must give. Giving some thought to our neighbours by being mindful of their needs is an important piece of the “give”.

Voluntarily and mindfully reducing noise during the silent hours of 10.30pm to 7.00am is a good place to start, making it possible for everyone to get a good night’s rest.  For the silent hours concept to work, we need to enter into a social compact, a voluntary accord to secure the collective protection and wellbeing of a community by self-regulating our indivual conduct.

At this time of the day, most activities in the neighbourhood have wound down and any loud sounds coming from our homes or common spaces such as the void decks and playgrounds are amplified.  Keeping noise levels low or switching to quieter nighttime activities contribute to our neighbours’ well-being and friendlier neighbourly relations.

The Greek poet Hesiod once said: “A bad neighbour is a misfortune, as much as a good neighbour is a great blessing.” In this festive season, as a segment of our community sings “Silent Night”, let us strive to be more respectful of each other’s appreciation for peace and goodwill, and be a blessing to each other.

Who knows, our thoughtfulness shown to our neighbours may be the seed that we sow for lifelong friendships just waiting to blossom.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in The Straits Times – December 15, 2016
© Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

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