Singapore and the right to silence

MAY 5 — The local coffee shop recently stopped broadcasting football matches in the evenings.

Champions League and Premier League fans were apparently disturbing the sleep and general peace and quiet of nearby residents, sparking complaints that put an end to late night football viewing.  

This may not seem like a huge deal, but you must put Singapore’s neighbourhood coffee shops in perspective. 

These coffee shops — open air (and they do sell beer until 10pm) are an integral part of the hawker centres which lie at the heart of most HDB (public housing) developments in Singapore. 

These centres are where a large proportion of residents get their meals — and nearby shops and amenities mean this is also where people do a good part of their socialising.

Basically, these are core public spaces for the 80 per cent of the population who live in HDB housing.

Local amenities like the coffee shops and the televised football they offer are an important part of people’s lives and particularly important for older generations and people who just don’t have the income or the transportation to spend their evening in clubs and bars further afield.

And the end of football isn’t a stand-alone matter.

Over the last few years, local neighbourhoods have seen extensive bans on smoking and a ban on beer being served after 10pm plus a ban on the promoter ladies who used to sell the beers.

The result has been the gradual sucking away of the vibrancy and sense of community from our communal spaces. 

While I can begin to see the logic of some restriction on smoking and excessive drinking, watching football was really a harmless pastime — and important to some of the older and retired men in the neighbourhood. 

Did it generate noise? A little but for the uncles who can sit for hours pontificating about goals and leagues, it was an outlet for joy.

These men and their beers and their occasional cheers were part of the community. And now they aren’t.

Noise is a subjective issue; recently I came across a bar in downtown Singapore being harassed by residents of a nearby (but still over 30 metres away) upscale condo.

The residents of the condo were making a real effort to stop the pleasant and very reasonable volume of “live” music played by the bar until only 10pm on weekends. 

But whether it’s the residents of posh condos or ordinary dwellers above heartland coffee shops,the questions is: does anyone really have the right to perfect silence after 10pm?

Does anyone have a right to silence at all?

We live in congested cities and dense neighbourhoods. Singapore has a population density of almost 8,000 residents per square kilometre. 

This gives us access to a concentration of facilities, amenities and job opportunities but it also means noise.

People make noise... for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s a celebratory Yam Seng, the call to prayer or the sounds of Thaipusam.

Whether it’s a young child practising the piano or bass guitar — the history of human civilisation is the history of noise. It is embedded at every level of our culture.

If you don’t like noise, you really can’t live among large groups of people. I mean, of course, there must be limits; 80 decibels-plus construction noise or thumping music in the early hours of the morning is hard for anyone to bear. 

But the odd cheer before midnight, if it not amplified, is surely the price one has to pay for living with other humans 

By refusing to acknowledge the right to a little noise, we are killing communities. The ever-increasing restrictions I’ve seen in my neighbourhood haven’t made it a paradise for families, rather they have rendered it a dead zone.

As the space empties out at night, shops and hawkers who used to depend on footfall and loitering late-night customers have begun to struggle.

Today, rather than families or groups it’s Food Panda delivery drivers who haunt the alleys — a symbol of retreat from community life.

Everyone is in their own apartment, in their own bubble of entertainment; everyone at home early, headphones in, laptops on — no more noise, no more beers, no more skateboards.

But it also means no more community and that is perhaps the most crucial element lost in terms of safety, nation-building and unity. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles