Opening Address by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong SC at the Mediators' Appointment Ceremony and Appreciation Dinner 2022
28 October 2022 Posted in [Speeches]
Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, Chairman of the Advisory Committee for Community Mediation
Ladies and gentlemen
1. A very good evening to all of you, and a warm welcome. It is so nice to be able to see all of you again.
- It is wonderful that we can gather here today.
- I was just reminiscing that the last time we had this function was in 2019.
- We will have some fun because tonight is to celebrate your achievements, to honour all the work that you have done to make mediation special in Singapore.
- Let me begin, therefore, by thanking all of you for the good work that you have done over the last three years. Tonight has been extra special and extra long – we used to do it every year but now, we have to do it today for the last three years. So thank you very much to all of you.
The pandemic and its effects on relationships
6. During the Circuit Breaker, almost everyone had to stay at home, and many of our homes are not meant for everyone to be at home all at the same time.
7. There was a lot of anxiety – about the virus, our health considerations and the health of loved ones, whether we have enough masks, whether we have sanitisers, and so on.
8. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a spike in the number of neighbour disputes, some of which were reported in the media.
(a) One of these difficulties involved a male nurse from Sengkang General Hospital. He was targeted by his neighbours who sprayed disinfectant at him, at his home, and also scolded vulgarities.
(b) Another involved a man who was fined for fighting with his neighbour on the common corridor after accusing him of waking his sleeping 3-year-old.
(c) Most recently, a woman in Hougang posted videos on social media, of her neighbour apparently making loud banging noises till the wee hours of the morning.
Surge in mediation requests during the pandemic
- These, and many other cases turned up at the CMC. The number of cases at the CMC reached its highest in 2021.
10. There was also an increase in cases referred to the CMC by our partner agencies, in particular from HDB and SPF.
11. Let me, at this point, also thank our partner agencies for supporting us and working so well with CMC.
(a) It is indeed by working together that we can promote harmonious living in the community and enable neighbours to resolve their disputes amicably. Resolving the disputes between neighbours is more than just that one occasion. It preserves the relationships of that neighbour for a long time.
(b) Some of the collaboration with our partner agencies entailed also setting up satellite mediation venues at the location of these partner agencies, publicising the information about the CMC through their social media, website and newsletters as well as conducting briefings to HDB and SPF’s own frontline officers so that they will be able to advise neighbours who are in disputes, to come to the CMC.
- Of all the neighbour dispute cases registered for mediation, noise continues to be the top of the complaints – not just the top, but top by far.
13. For the past two years, many have had to work from home.
(a) These families with children have been juggling with working from home, home-based learning for the children, helping the children along, in difficult and unforeseen situations.
(b) With more people at home, inevitably the noise level goes up, and the tolerance for noise levels also goes down.
14. Consequently, we had a lot more disputes and conflicts.
15. In many cases, some understanding and appreciation of what the parties are facing in their personal circumstances goes a long way towards resolving these disputes. Let me share a case of two neighbours: Mdm A and Mrs B.
(a) During the pandemic, Mdm A claimed that every day, she could hear loud music being played, items being dropped and thrown on the floor and furniture being dragged.
(b) The noise would go on the whole day and become louder at night.
(c) She spoke to Mrs B, her upper floor neighbour several times, to request her to keep the noise down.
(d) Mdm A said that since the pandemic, she had been working from home while her son has been home-based-learning, and the entire environment was not suitable.
(e) They were constantly disrupted by the noise, and this caused a lot of distress, as you can imagine.
(f) At the mediation, Mrs B explained that during the Circuit Breaker, similarly her teenage son was also confined at home for weeks and was unable to meet his friends.
(g) The isolation led him to release his stress by listening to music loudly, playing video games, and exercising at home – which caused those dropping sounds on the floor.
16. After a two-hour mediation, in the hands of a very good mediator who listened to their problem, understood not just the problem, but the reasons for the problem, both realised that they were facing the same problem as fellow mothers, and they understood that both were facing challenges. They agreed to contact each other a lot more frequently, chat about it, and after a while, they agreed that this was something they could resolve between themselves.
17. This is just one of the many success stories, and it is a success story not just because of a successful mediation. This session allowed the parties to see the perspectives from the other side, which is even more important.
Adjustments made during the pandemic
18. During Circuit Breaker in 2020, the CMC also had to adjust how mediation and training had to be conducted. But we did not let the fact that we had to have home-based learning, or SMMs, or work from home affect the progress of these training sessions.
19. The centre had suspended face-to-face mediation as part of safe distancing measures, many stayed indoors. But many of our CMC mediators voluntarily stepped forward when we conducted online mediation sessions.
20. CMC introduced what we call “shuttle mediation”, where you were shuttling between the separate rooms where the parties were placed. This is quite ideal. Because of SMMs, because we could not have more than five in one room, they were moving from one room to another.
(a) This of course, proved to be highly challenging and more demanding.
(b) Face-to-face interactions were less possible.
(c) Versions of the dispute had to be repeated.
(d) Mediations were conducted with masks, which means that you cannot really read the emotions, which I know a lot of mediators do. They very cleverly read emotions and your sentiments, to be able to reach out at the right moment. We were not able to do all of that.
21. With these measures in mind, many of you had shared with the CMC that it made the reading of non-verbal and facial cues problematic.
22. Notwithstanding this, you did not let this deter you.
23. In 2020, all the training continued, all done virtually.
- Dr Lim Lan Yuan– CMC’s Principal Master Mediator and Trainer – in particular conducted these sessions through webinars. He handled various topics, such as Drafting Enforceable Settlement Terms, a topic that you might find really difficult to do online, but he persevered because he knew how important it was. Handling Cultural and Religious Issues in Community Mediation, another webinar topic not easy to do online, and actually quite hard to do even in person, but Dr Lim did all this online gamely.
25. I also want to give a shout out to fellow CMC mediators like Mdm Yeo Hwee Peng, Mr Indu Kumar, Dr Simon Neo, Mr Tan Lam Siong, Mdm Diane Kum and Ms Grace Wong. All of you had stepped forward, offered your time so freely and so willingly, despite I am sure of your own challenges with COVID at that point in time, with yourself, your loved ones and your family.
26. From virtual mediation to dealing with parties with mental health issues, all of these continued to be serviced by mediators. I can tell you that I am tremendously proud of all of you mediators here – all of you who have really helped move mediation to a very important place in Singapore, and help to deal with a significant problem, an offshoot of COVID, which was all the noise and other neighbourhood conflicts that we saw in the middle of COVID.
27. These trainings have certainly also helped the CMC tremendously, in particular, to form its own in-house mediation trainers, led by Dr Lim and assisted by co-trainers, Mr Tan Lam Siong, Mdm Diane Kum and Ms Grace Wong.
(a) To all these mediators and to Dr Lim, please accept all our heartfelt appreciation thanks for having seen all these efforts through, despite COVID.
28. Let me now turn to say a little bit more about utilising technology in mediation. As we saw from the video, in 2021 the CMC introduced quite a game-changer.
(a) On-site Zoom mediation was introduced due to further restrictions on social gatherings.
(b) From conducting mediation sessions with a co-mediator, some of you were assigned to handle solo mediations.
(c) You had to quickly adapt and familiarise yourself with managing mediation sessions single-handedly, without a co-mediator.
29. While many may be familiar with using Zoom for office meetings, it was sometimes a lot more difficult to conduct mediation online.
(a) In fact, many of you shared with the CMC about the struggles and the steep learning curve that they had experienced when you had to quickly familiarise themselves with the tools and techniques of using Zoom to switch from ‘main room’ to ‘break out room’ for private sessions, and then switch back again to the ‘main room’. You cannot say the wrong things to the wrong room, and sometimes after speaking for two good minutes making a key point, you realised you were actually on mute. All of us had such an experience, right?
(b) So it is not an easy thing to do online, but all of you persevered and made good. Because of this, many cases were resolved through online mediation.
- Leveraging technology is important as we strive to make mediation even more accessible to the residents. Mediation sometimes struggles from being accessible. It is actually very easy to do mediation when you get the parties to come together. But the difficulty sometimes is getting them to come down. They might think to themselves, “Look, I am having a disagreement with my neighbour who lives two metres from me. Why do the two of us have to go down to somewhere in the middle of the CBD to do mediation?” So we are thinking of bringing mediation back into the heartlands and into the community so that people can go for mediation at the location of where the disagreement is. I think that context helps the parties to resolve the issues much more quickly and more effectively.
The future of community mediation
- Speaking of the effectiveness of mediation, I am sure many of you know the effectiveness of mediation once you get through the mediation process. Let me give you some numbers.
(a) More than 80% of the cases mediated at the CMC are successfully settled, even during the pandemic. This number has been consistent through the last three years.
(b) However, less than 30% of the cases registered at the CMC actually proceeded to mediation. In other words, not enough get through the door. But if you get through the door, you have more than 8 in 10 chances of having the case mediated. That is the testament to the effectiveness of the system and perhaps perseverance of each of our mediators.
- Why do parties not want to mediate? At times, some parties do not think there was an issue to mediate; some do not think mediation would be effective and successful; others, for other reasons, are unresponsive or unwilling to even try.
- You may be aware of the ongoing review on Community Dispute Management Framework, or CDMF for short.
(a) This is a very important study undertaken by three key ministries: MinLaw, MCCY and MND.
(b) Broadly, it covers a whole range of issues including early intervention in neighbourly disputes by building consensus through community norms that can be a useful guide for determining acceptable community behaviours.
(c) This can serve as a useful guide in determining acceptable behaviours among neighbours as well as a reference point for agencies when advising residents to be considerate neighbours.
(d) Measures such as considering making mediation mandatory for some cases and improving the Community Dispute Resolution Tribunals (CDRT) processes downstream are also being considered.
- One of the aims of the review is to find ways to increase the uptake of community mediation for obvious reasons because as I said earlier, if you actually go through the mediation process, the chances of being able to resolve it will be very high.
(A) Making mediation mandatory for neighbour disputes
35. What are the steps we are taking? Let me share with you ahead of time. First, we are exploring mandating mediation in certain circumstances.
(a) This could include mandating mediation in disputes where parties have been unresponsive to agencies’ or their neighbours’ efforts to resolve the dispute, and we require parties to attempt mediation at the CMC before they are allowed to file a claim at the CDRT.
(b) We want to provide a platform for parties to come together first and foremost, to talk to each other about the issues that vex them, and in the presence of someone who is trained and is able to see beyond the issues. Like what the video said – “to look behind the complaint and to look at the emotions and the reasons of the complaint”.
(c) More importantly, I feel that this play a big part in preserving our neighbourly and community relations. You can imagine if you went to the CDRT or the Court, one side wins, and the other side loses. That particular dispute will be resolved. But can you imagine going home every day to see your neighbour even after you have won the case and wonder whether the next time you put your slipper a little bit beyond the boundary, he may complain. That is not a good way of fostering strong neighbourly relations. So community mediation, bringing them before the CMC, talking it out before trained Master Mediators, will make a big difference.
(B) CMC-mediated settlement agreements
- Second, we are also studying whether and how to allow parties to register their CMC-mediated settlement agreements, or everything that you have done that results in agreement, as an order of Court. This would not only improve the ease of enforcement against any breach of the agreement, but also provide the settlement agreements with more teeth, and would give a lot of credit to what the mediators have done to encourage greater respect for, and compliance with, the mediation outcome.
(C) Face-to-face satellite mediation and virtual mediation
37. Third, we are looking at how we can increase the awareness and accessibility of mediation.
38. To increase the awareness of mediation,
(a) The CMC has been working together with partner agencies to share the importance and benefits of mediation with the public. If the people know that they can come for mediation and it is in a nice and friendly environment, it will make a big difference. When they know the outcomes are so successful, you will make an even better push for mediation.
(b) This awareness has been done through various publicity and outreach channels, including briefings to partner agencies, updating the CMC brochure with new information and creating infographics to help people understand the mediation process.
(c) The CMC will also continue its outreach efforts by exploring TikTok content as well. We want to spread awareness as much as we can, and TikTok has been one of the new ways in which the CMC has been trying to reach and spread its wings.
- To increase the accessibility of mediation and avail mediation within the community,
(a) We will facilitate and arrange for mediation to be conducted nearer to their homes. I mentioned earlier that it does not make sense to have a dispute with a neighbour who lives two steps away, and both of you have to take the bus or the MRT to the middle of town to do mediation. So we will begin by looking at having mediation take place at six satellite locations.
(b) These are ServiceSG Centres at Our Tampines Hub and One Punggol, ServiceSg@CC Frontier as well as Geylang Serai, Toa Payoh West and Nee Soon East Community Clubs. So six locations to start with across the island to be closer to where you live.
(c) Residents who are elderly and with mobility issues will be able to access the CMC’s mediation service.
(d) We will consider extending this mode to more locations, in the future, after we are done with a bit of pilot with the six locations, iron out some of the problems and then we can roll out more locations around the island.
- We also intend to trial using Zoom mediation for neighbour disputes with residents from Tampines and Pasir Ris GRCs. It is not always easy to do mediation via Zoom because it is hard to tell the emotions and the chemistry, but it is better than nothing. It is a good start. For those who are not able to travel or with limitations, you can reach out via Zoom.
- Progressively, the CMC will be offering virtual mediation to residents in other parts of Singapore as well.
- So these are among the string of the measures that the CDMF taskforce is considering, and in due course, when we are ready, we will roll it out. Some of these will also require changes to legislation because you need to give teeth to what the enforcement will do, and teeth to give the framework some structure and allow our officers to intervene appropriately. I will announce more about this in due course.
- The role of the mediator is, as you have heard in the video, crucial in many ways. It is the one cool head in the room, when you are having mediation between several parties for highly emotional, very personally invested, and sees things from a very different vantage point.
- The success of the CMC, which in turn, translates into the success of these mediations is really down to your good work. Because each individual piece of mediation is different. Each one requires you to analyse and understand not just the facts of the case, but also the emotions behind them. When you find the right, appropriate juncture to reach across, build that bridge, put a hand on the shoulder and find that path of a completed mediation. And that is a tremendous skill.
45. So, I thank you all very much for your commitment to the CMC, particularly in the last few years.
46. As Ms Annu mentioned in the appreciation video, the intention of community mediation is really to bring parties within the community together. It is not really to resolve disputes, but it is really to allow parties to see a common path. A path that best suits them, and best preserves the long-lasting relationship.
- So I want to say again, that your contribution is invaluable, and your commitment and passion are admirable.
48. And I want to leave you with the words of Albert Schweitzer “To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”
- Thank you very much, enjoy your evening.
Last updated on 28 October 2022