He takes pride in resolving disputes

In high-rise Singapore, dripping laundry is a common grouse among neighbours.

But when a person's soaking wet clothes drizzle on attire that is important to his neighbour, such seemingly trivial matters can escalate rapidly into intractable misunderstandings.

In one instance, an enraged man spewed a barrage of heated words and accusations across the table at his neighbour who lived upstairs at a mediation session led by community mediator Gerald Singham a few years ago.

The man felt that his neighbour was being insensitive and disrespectful, but it was an honest mistake by the neighbour, Mr Singham said.

After a few sessions, he was able to help both parties understand this and come to an agreement.

The neighbour who lived upstairs agreed to squeeze his laundry thoroughly before hanging it out. If it should still drip, the neighbour who lived below would inform him about this so that he would be able to rectify it.

This episode in 2012 cemented Mr Singham's belief in the pivotal role that mediation should play in resolving community disputes.

The 52-year-old partner at law firm Rodyk & Davidson has been playing peacemaker for the last 17 years, doing his best to prevent tiffs between neighbours from ending up in court.

"If that case went to court, either party may end up feeling hurt or prejudiced against," the corporate lawyer said. "Mediation has a better chance of being a remedy because community issues are often relational in nature."

The pioneer was among the country's first few mediators who volunteered when the first mediation centre was set up at the then Marine Parade Community Development Council (CDC) when the Community Mediation Centres Act was passed in 1997.

Although mediation was still an unfamiliar concept to many at that time, Mr Singham - then a secretary at Marine Parade CDC - had already been mulling over the idea of introducing an avenue that warring neighbours can turn to in his district, the way villagers would get their village head to preside over disputes in the past.

The landscape of mediation has evolved further since then.

Two weeks ago, the Government announced the setting up of a new tribunal to deal with neighbours embroiled in long-standing disputes who may need legal recourse. More details are available at www.mccy.gov.sg/communitydispute.

Mr Singham, now a master mediator, has been taking on a few cases every year for the last 17 years. This is no mean feat because he is also deeply involved in other grassroots and community work.

For instance, he is vice-chairman of racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg. It also trains young people with mediation skills so that they can be the go-betweens among their peers.

Its executive director, Mr Ramesh Ganeson, 42, who has worked with Mr Singham for seven years, said: "You can tell from his tone and mannerisms that he really wants to help others and, so, naturally people tend to listen to him and loosen up."

Mr Singham's mediation work or the free legal counselling that he offers residents at Teck Ghee Community Club often comes after a long day at work negotiating mergers and acquisitions.

When asked why he puts up with acrimonious or unpleasant arguments as a peacemaker, he said he finds great satisfaction in helping people patch things up.

"When they walk out of the room chatting with each other or even going home together, it makes my day," said Mr Singham.

At times, he gets emotionally drained, such as when he sees siblings squabble over who is responsible for caring for their elderly parents.

"It does hit me and it's difficult to snap out of it after a session but I try to store these as part of my experiences," he said.

They come in handy at home: Whenever his four teenage children get into a tussle, he sits in a corner and lets them work it out themselves.

"I don't impose any decision on them but rather prod them to think about how the quarrel started and why they did what they did," he said.

"I don't take sides but if a child is wrong, I will make that clear to him or her when we are alone in the car to avoid embarrassing that child," he added.

Resolving tensions at work, home or in the community is no chore for the busy lawyer.

"I want to be the answer to someone's prayer," he said. "So that when I go to bed at night, I know there will be two fewer unhappy people in the world that day."


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.