Comment: Tharman aims to be a unifying figure, but unity in S'pore starts in our neighbourhoods

And it starts with the people in our neighbourhoods.

Abel Ang | September 09, 2023, 09:30 AM

COMMENTARY: "People like President-elect Tharman believe that the lack of common experience is unhealthy for Singapore. The life of the haves is increasingly looking different from those who have-not."

Our contributor Abel Ang suggests that while building unity in Singapore is an important priority for our newly-elected incoming President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, it should start in our neighbourhoods. He also shares his experience of being one of the people in his own neighbourhood.

Abel Ang is the chairperson of Republic Polytechnic, which is situated in a neighbourhood of Woodlands.

One of my favourite songs is “People In Your Neighbourhood” by Sesame Street.

The Sesame Street classic opens with a human actor talking about all the interesting people that live in their neighbourhood. After a short chat with various muppet characters, the song opens with the lines:

Oh, who are the people in your neighbourhood?

In your neighbourhood?

In your neighbourhood?

Say, who are the people in your neighbourhood?

The people that you meet each day

President-elect Tharman shared that when he was a child, most people in Singapore were poor. The poverty in our neighbourhoods at that time created a sense of common experience. Everyone was the same because everyone was similarly poor.

As Singapore has progressed, those who have succeeded through education, or jobs, or business are starting to bring up their children in a different way. These parents increasingly favour “elite” schools over “normal” schools. Private clubs over public sports facilities. Privately owned homes over public housing.

People like President-elect Tharman believe that the lack of common experience is unhealthy for Singapore. The life of the haves is increasingly looking different from those who have-not.

The landslide Presidential election result is a great start for shared common experience. Even President-elect Tharman was surprised by his winning margin, billing it as a vote for unity.

I believe that the win would not have been possible if he had not been deeply engaged in the neighbourhood of Taman Jurong, where he had been Member of Parliament for 22 years, before stepping down.

The President-elect has become such a ubiquitous face in the neighbourhood that his residents know exactly where to look for him to chat or to seek assistance, they do not wait for his scheduled Meet-the-People sessions.

In turn, the President-elect speaks with deep affection about the community, his residents, and especially his favorite hawker center in Taman Jurong, where he has enjoyed many meals over the years.

Choosing to live in a Housing Development Board (HDB) flat over the last 24 years, my family has had a chance to engage and meet many people in our neighbourhood. Here are some of them.


The postwoman from SingPost is a person in my neighbourhood. She rides her bike laden with letters and parcels from the regional post office several times a week. Each round trip is about 10km, which she makes under all weather conditions, rain or shine.

The job does not end until all the letters and parcels for the day are delivered. Some days, I see her as late as 7pm in the evening. On those days, when I ask her why she doesn’t deliver the letters the next day, she tells me that she cannot rest well if her work is not finished.

My postwoman is a bubbly Muslim lady who wears a tudung along with her Singpost uniform. Her indefatigable spirit is amazing to observe. During Ramadan, despite fasting, she powers through her physical work with such cheer. When I ask her how I can help, she often responds that I can pray for her to do a better job at work.

She has watched my two boys grow up, looking out for important mail that has marked critical milestones in their lives, like my elder boy’s enlistment letter from the Ministry of Defence, or his acceptance letter from the polytechnic of his choice, years ago.

Wanton Mee Hawker

The wanton mee hawker is a person in my neighbourhood.

Hawker Uncle’s stall is located at the market nearby. The wanton mee he serves is my younger son’s favourite.

I am convinced that my son goes to him as much to buy the wanton mee as to chat with him.

The hawker’s pride in his wanton mee is palpable. He never fails to tell each patron that his wanton mee is the best in Singapore.

Each bowl is lovingly prepared exactly to the customer’s specifications. Precise amounts of chili oil, with green leafy vegetables added or sans, and quantity of noodles are just a few of the possible customisations. What results is a bespoke bowl of noodles made to order. Designer wanton mee at S$4.50 per bowl.

Hawker Uncle often asks my son how he is doing in school. If the grades are going well, Hawker Uncle will say that it is because of his wanton mee. If the grades are not going so well, he will tell my son that he needs to eat uncle’s wanton mee more often.

This hawker’s pride in his culinary art form led him to offer my younger boy an internship at his stall. He said that my son was welcomed to come and learn Uncle’s craft during his school holidays, especially since eating Uncle’s wanton mee is good for his studies.

So far, my son has not taken up the internship offer. But if he, or other young people take up Hawker Uncle’s internship offer, I think there is a real possibility that his skill and craft will pass on safely to future generations.


The barber is a person in my neighbourhood.

My barber likes to call his barber shop a senior day care. He is 76, and his partner in the shop is 68. There are always several male seniors of similar age hanging around the shop during the day, either reading the paper or shooting the breeze with each other.

My barber has been trimming hair since he was 18 years old. He spent years refining his craft in the now defunct Ladyhill Hotel on Orange Grove Road.

As each patron takes a seat, my barber is continuously assessing and planning how he will cut, shape, and style. There is no stress, no rush, and no wasted movement. This man has clocked his 10,000 hours of practice many times over.

Despite six decades in the business my barber has been taking SkillsFuture courses to keep himself updated. He shared with me conspiratorially that at 76, there is still a lot that he can learn, especially on the IT front.

As my barber ages, he is slowing down and has raised prices to accommodate that he cannot serve as many customers as he used to.

My sons no longer have the patience to wait for him to cut their hair, but I continue to keep the faith. I guess that I am just old school. I will stay with my barber until he calls it a day. Even if it sometimes means that I wait two hours for a haircut.

Common Experience

“People In Your Neighbourhood” is a simple song that has been done and redone over the years because of how timeless the concept is.

Ultimately a neighbourhood is about developing bonds between people. To really see your neighbours, and in return, be seen by them.

While we may come from different races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we are one neighbourhood. We are the people in our neighbourhood.

Whether we succeed or fail as a nation depends on what happens in our neighbourhoods. Stronger neighbourhoods result in a stronger Singapore.

Top photos by Andrew Koay and by Andrew Haha Lee on Unsplash