Mr Kiasu and his kampung spirit

Mr Kiasu and his kampung spirit
Mr Suresh (left) and Mr Syed Ismail with their book, Singapore In The 60s, in which he shares personal nuggets from his childhood.
PHOTO: The New Paper

It started in 2001 as a simple potluck party among a small group of neighbours to celebrate National Day. And every year since, Mr James Suresh has been organising a street party in his Opera Estate on National Day that is now a symbol for promoting neighbourliness.

Today, the event is supported by the Singapore Kindness Movement, which has dubbed it "The Big Makan", an August evening of food, fun and games that epitomises Singapore's "kampung spirit" and brings together multiracial families.

For his efforts, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has hailed Mr Suresh, who is known for co-creating the hugely-popular Mr Kiasu local comic book series, as an advocate of a "caring and active community".

"It's almost nostalgic to look back on our first street party held in 2001, where those living along the street contributed food items, tables and chairs as we gathered for an evening of festivity in similar fashion," recalls Mr Suresh, 59, who has lived in Opera Estate since 1993.

"Now 15 years down the road, it gives me immense pride to see that this tradition has endured and our residents have found even more ways to keep the occasion new and exciting."

Potluck of multiracial flavours

When the street party began, the focus was on the food - a spread of multiracial flavours consisting of mee siam, mee goreng, fried rice, satay, roti prata, curry puffs and sandwiches. There were also simple relay games for the children. After a few years of familiarity, the party evolved and fun quizzes were added to educate the residents about the history of Opera Estate, a private estate along Siglap Road.

Says Mr Suresh: "I believe the longevity of this initiative is down to how we aren't just a loose collection of people who happen to live on the same street. We are neighbours, and all of us in the Opera Estate community are making a conscious effort to be neighbourly.

"When we begin to think of each other as friends, it becomes natural to care for and help each other. And I believe that our street party exemplifies this as each year, everyone is happy to contribute because they know they are helping to create a more tight-knit and homely neighbourhood."

Mr Suresh is proud that the street bash has grown from "about 60 per cent participation and now we've reached about 90 per cent participation". He says: "There are always some neighbours, who are overseas or do not turn up as they have other appointments on that day. We did not call our street party 'The Big Makan' until the Singapore Kindness Movement got involved about three years ago, as they had read about our street party in the press and wanted to be part of it.

"They sponsored the tent and also some food for the party. They wanted to showcase us as an example of neighbourliness and promote kindness."

Mr Suresh laments that with the busy pace of life in Singapore, talking to neighbours has become a thing of the past. After all, his best childhood memories were in a rented flat in the 1960s in Queenstown, one of the first public housing estates in Singapore. He recalls: "We enjoyed simple pleasures like playing the guitar late into the night at the staircase landing or going to the pasar malam or visiting each other's homes to listen to records. Staying over in my Chinese friend's three-room flat, which was already cramped with 10 other siblings, and feeling as if I was one of the family."

Passion for Singapore reflected in text

The father of three also moans that the younger generation can't bring back the past era of outdoor kampung life for many reasons:

They are bogged down with too much schoolwork; they spend too much time indoors playing computer games and when they are outdoors, they look at their smartphones or play hand-held games; and parents focus too much on academic grades and see play and exploring nature as a waste of time.

He says: "If we don't share stories and we don't bring our children to the old estates and tell them stories of days gone by, they may be lost forever. By telling stories, we help to bridge the gap of experience and we help them to appreciate what life was like in their parents' time. It's like passing history through storytelling."

Mr Suresh, a trainer and PR consultant by profession, thus makes it his mission to write stories with a local flavour.

He has co-written the first five books in the Mr Kiasu series and also developed a comic strip, Kopi Thiam, with cartoonist Adam Lee.

He also worked with another illustrator, Syed Ismail, to illustrate a book about military days, titled When I Was In Uniform. Then came a second book On A Street In Singapore.

In his latest book, called Singapore In The 60s, he shares personal nuggets from his childhood. He says: "When I tell my children that there were cows grazing on the grass outside my flat in Margaret Drive, they look at me in disbelief. I realised that there are many Singaporeans who may not know what life was like in the '60s."

Seeing the benefits

Mr Suresh hopes the concept of "The Big Makan" will spread to other estates and even the Housing Board heartlands to underscore the importance of the "kampung spirit".

"We are all social creatures and our neighbours are our community. As a result of the annual street party, the residents know their neighbours and develop life-long friendships," he says. "We look out for one another and our children also learn the importance of social interaction."

He salutes his wife, Evelyn, and three children, Shaman, 26, Shona, 21, and Shankar, 20, for inspiring his community-spiritedness. He adds: "Evelyn keeps a database of every neighbour in our street and updates it every time someone moves out or moves in. She coordinates the food arrangements with all the ladies for the street party and handles all invitations to our community leaders.

Likewise the support from my children has been extraordinary."

The bonds which developed have seen benefits in the estate. "For instance, no one in our street uses a dustbin to reserve parking space outside their house," says Mr Suresh. "But I see it happening in other streets, where neighbours are less familiar with each other. We have never had any quarrels or conflicts among neighbours because people know each other and have learnt to live and let live."

Spreading kindness

The elderly in the estate, some of whom now live alone, have also benefited from this communal spirit. Mr Suresh says: "I've helped, and it's reciprocated, in sending the elders to hospital, repairing gates, sharing recipes, trimming hedges, collecting newspapers when we are away and much more."

He adds: "We sometimes console each other during bereavements and celebrate weddings. Close to 22 years in Opera Estate, I've seen my neighbours' children become parents and I have attended many weddings and some funerals. We laugh and sometimes cry together."

Former NCMP (Non-Constituency Member of Parliament) Yee Jenn Jong, who attended one of the recent "The Big Makan" bashes, wrote in his blog: "In our sometimes highly-stressed environment, it pays to show a little kindness to those around you. In that way, you can help make a better environment for yourself, too."

Mr Richard Tan, 47, who helps in the annual party, thinks it's important that the neighbourhood bash be emulated islandwide.

"Because of the ice-breakers initiated by the street party, people stop and talk to each other when they pass. They wave when they are passing by in the cars. I stop and talk to the older folks whose children have left the nest," he says.

Reaching out

To Mr Suresh, rallying neighbours behind a common cause may be a challenge as it "takes time and effort on both sides" and "doesn't happen overnight", but it's not impossible.

He says: "Reach out with your heart and soul. Make a difference to those around you - your friend, neighbour, family member or even a stranger. The simple acts of kindness make a world of a difference every day.

"Simple acts such as helping an elderly neighbour with his shopping; spending half an hour with a lonely person providing companionship; helping neighbourhood kids with their English and Maths; or simply greeting and exchanging smiles."

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