I gave my neighbours free mangoes because kampung spirit, but some thought it was weird

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 22, 2019 @ 02:11 pm


Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2017 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 52 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore’s collective future.

“Lessons from my mango tree” is an essay contributed by Lynette Ooi, a wife, mother of two, and lawyer for Amazon. She writes articles and volunteers in support of women leadership and medical humanitarian causes in her free time.

Ooi’s essay is reproduced in full here:

By Lynette Ooi

A beautiful mango tree stands in my garden, nearly two stories tall, its lush foliage in full view from the street. It is probably a few decades old, and was there when my husband and I bought the house in 2013.

Abundance of mangos

We watched in anticipation and delight as flowers began to bloom on the tree’s branches, which eventually became heavy with swollen fruit. The flesh of the fruit was sweet yet tangy, firm yet succulent—truly some of the best mangoes I’d ever tasted.

One particular harvest in late 2016 overwhelmed us. We were plucking dozens of mangoes a week, and they were ripening at a steady pace.

My toddler son was delighted with our steady supply of fruit, but we still had plenty left over, which we decided to use as gifts.

Family and relatives received them first; next, we were slicing them up and bringing them to the office as pantry treats. One friend received a bagful as a birthday present—she spent a week in “mango heaven”.

Still, the tree kept on delivering and we couldn’t give the mangoes away quickly enough. I needed new ideas.

Some neighbours pleased to receive mangos

While harvesting one day, I looked out the gate at the neighbouring residences.

I was struck, with some embarrassment, by how little I knew of my neighbours after having lived in the house for a year. Partly, it was because few of them ever took the initiative to introduce themselves.

However, what was stopping me from taking the first step?

The mango tree had given me a valuable opportunity to do so.

One blazing afternoon, I put mangoes in bags and walked down the street with my daughter to hand them out. We started with our immediate neighbours.

I had always assumed that the family to our right was unfriendly, as they kept to themselves and had a massive house surrounded by high walls.

When I rang the bell, however, the lady of the house was delighted to see me. She said that she had been admiring my mango tree and seemed so pleased with the few I gave her.

It turned out that she was a lawyer like me, with four kids. I spent 10 minutes at her gate exchanging anecdotes from the legal industry and parenthood.

The house to our left had an equally positive response: the elderly gentleman, who was tending his garden when we arrived, beamed warmly and exclaimed, “These will make my wife very happy!”

Others were more wary

However, the further I walked, the more lukewarm the responses became.

The security guards at the condominium across the road accepted the mangoes, but seemed baffled by the gift.

Another neighbour about eight houses away expressed surprise when I told him my address, saying, “Wa, so far away!”

I blushed when one couple seemed thoroughly perplexed by my offer and looked at me as if I was trying to poison them. But I laughed it off, remembering a wise phrase I had heard before: “I’d rather be the weird over-friendly stranger than the cold acquaintance.”

This is the year 2017, when it is far more acceptable to send a private message to a stranger through a handheld device, than to knock on the door a few steps from yours.

Singaporeans don’t really trust their neighbours

The Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) conducts an annual survey to track kindness and graciousness among residents.

In the face-to-face poll of over 3,000 Singapore residents conducted in 2017, one in 10 respondents did not interact with their neighbours at all. Hardly any engaged in displays of trust such as babysitting, borrowing or lending of household items, or safekeeping of house keys.

Only one per cent ever exchanged food or gifts with neighbours and only 30 per cent engaged in casual conversation with their neighbours more than once a week, a proportion significantly lower than the year before.

Furthermore, of those surveyed, only 26 per cent desired greater neighbourliness. More than half thought the current situation was “good enough”, while 15 per cent preferred to maintain their privacy.

Yet, community bonding is essential to alleviating some of the most pressing problems our society faces today, such as income equality, political division, and racial and cultural fault lines.

The power of small gestures

Recent political events, such as the Brexit referendum and the rejection of the political establishment by American voters in their 2016 general election, are a stark reminder of the importance of fostering a harmonious and inclusive society.

To this end, the power of small gestures in our daily interactions should not be underestimated.

In his keynote address at a 2015 conference in Washington DC, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam attributed Singapore’s relative success in multiculturalism to one key ingredient: its neighbourhoods.

He explained the importance of neighbourhood composition and design. However, he also emphasised,

“It’s not just about the numbers… it’s about the everyday experiences. It’s walking the corridors and taking the same elevators as your neighbours every day; it’s the way the kids grow up together in the playgrounds and in the primary school nearby; it’s about the peers in the neighbourhood. Neighbourhoods matter, the culture of neighbourhoods matter, but it doesn’t come about by accident.”

The information age and new technologies are often blamed for the demise of the “kampong spirit”.

However, rather than sounding the death knell for neighbourly ties, technology can be harnessed to facilitate and nurture them.

SKM’s survey found that 21 per cent of respondents communicate with their neighbours via social media messaging and instant messaging applications like WhatsApp make it easier for neighbours to keep in touch and share content remotely and on a regular basis.

Residents can use mobile applications like Suburb and HoodChampions to trade items, share local information, form interest groups, organise friendly competitions, report on crime, or just converse with one another.

However, whatever the medium, every relationship requires someone taking the first step to reach out. What my mango tree taught me is that doing so is not only easy, but extremely rewarding.

My mango tree gave me a chance to take the first step

My humble mangoes did not change the world, but they stirred a few hearts.

Expatriate colleagues who were new to Singapore were thrilled to taste local, homegrown fruit.

A few weeks later, my next-door lawyer neighbour returned the favour and gave me mangoes from her holiday in the Philippines, along with a heartfelt handwritten note.

When I carried out waterproofing works on my roof, our left-side neighbour willingly shared in the cleaning of our border wall. I now feel more assured of an extra pair of eyes on my house while I’m on vacation, and my neighbours’ understanding of the noise my family home generates.

Small steps, but they make my tiny corner of the world that little bit happier, stronger and safer.

What is the mango tree in your life? What do you have in abundance that might bear fruit for others?

Last but not least: Are you willing to take the first step to share it with others?

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

Top photo via Unsplash.

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