Shanmugam cautions against xenophobia

By David Lim

MINISTER for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam has shed light on a mediation case between two neighbours over the smell of curry.

The case, which was reported in a newspaper earlier this month, has sparked a furore online over its settlement terms.

Mr Shanmugam clarified that the incident took place about seven years ago and that the settlement was suggested by one of the two parties - and not the mediator who was present.

In the dispute, a family from China had resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell of curry that their Indian-Singaporean neighbours would cook.

In the end, the Indian-Singaporean family agreed to cook curry only when the Chinese family was not home.

At a media briefing held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said: "It's heartening to see so many people come together to affirm a key aspect of...Indian culture, the cooking of curry, which I think is now part of Singaporean culture as well.

"We must affirm our Singaporean identity and must protect it. (But) at the same time, let's not turn this into a xenophobic attack on foreigners in general."

On social-networking website Facebook, a group of seven netizens organised an islandwide event urging Singaporeans to cook curry in their homes this Sunday and to share it with foreigners. The campaign, Cook A Pot of Curry, has already amassed more than 43,000 followers since it was created last Thursday.

While the group's intention was simply to share the love of curry with foreigners, some netizens have lashed out at the mediator and the Chinese family over the outcome. Mr Shanmugam noted that the negative senti- ments arose because netizens were reacting to "a set of facts that are wholly inaccurate".

"It's critical for Singaporeans to understand that mediation is a way for parties to come together to solve their disputes without any compulsion in a totally consensual way," he said.

In other words, the mediator plays the role of a bridge between two parties, rather than that of a judge. He explained that at any point during the mediation process, "either party or both can walk off and that happens frequently".

The Community Mediation Centre (CMC) handled more than 300 disputes between neighbours last year and the bulk of these were between Singa- poreans.

Six in 10 cases were related to noise pollution and common-corridor obstruction while the remainder arose from a mix of issues such as cooking, littering and the disruption of peace.

The CMC has a settlement rate of three in four cases. It currently has more than 130 mediators and these include grassroots and community leaders. Mediators are not paid and must first attend a basic mediation training course.

During the course, they learn conflict-resolution techniques and skills to ensure that the mediation process is managed well.

They then under-go a period of apprenticeship under the guidance of a more senior mediator. If accepted, they are then granted a renewable two-year term. Two mediators sat in on this particular dispute.

When contacted yesterday, Ms Florence Leow, one of the organisers of the Cook A Pot of Curry event, expressed surprise that the dispute had taken place years ago. Despite this, she said that the event would still be held.

She stressed that the campaign "is not to antagonise the public against foreign nationals". She explained: "It is to celebrate the Singaporean identity. The purpose of the campaign is to spread the love (of curry) to all and we want to promote the message of curry-cooking."

Ms Leow, who is in her 40s, said that when she is at bus stops and rides on MRT trains, she finds that "there is not enough assimilation" between Singa- poreans and foreigners.

She said that in earlier days, there were "clans to mentor and guide immigrants in their lives" in a new country but this appears to be lacking now.

Through the event, Ms Leow hopes to raise aware- ness of the importance of integration.

"If you go to France, you wouldn't tell the locals not to eat cheese. So, likewise, blend in with us and appreciate our multiracial culture.

"You should hold up the sky of the land in which you live," she said, making reference to a Malay proverb which means that one should respect the country in which one lives.

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