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Gotong royong lessons for S’pore

As Singapore looks at how to build a greater sense of community and strengthen its resilience, devastated communities in far less developed countries might not seem the most obvious place to start. Yet experiences from post-tsunami Aceh and an Indonesian village wrecked by an earthquake offer lessons that could help create a better future for Singapore.

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As Singapore looks at how to build a greater sense of community and strengthen its resilience, devastated communities in far less developed countries might not seem the most obvious place to start. Yet experiences from post-tsunami Aceh and an Indonesian village wrecked by an earthquake offer lessons that could help create a better future for Singapore.

The insights come from Duta Wacana University Professor Eko Prawoto, who told participants at a recent Singapore International Foundation Forum how he saw foreign relief agencies rushing in to help with reconstruction and creating single-family houses quickly when he was helping with recovery efforts after the tsunami hit Aceh in 2004.

What these organisations did not do, however, was take time to engage the community and find out that the people preferred their long-standing custom of half a dozen families or more living in one building. As a result, the tiny new houses remained empty.

TAKE THE TIME TO LISTEN

Learning from this experience when he worked on reconstructing Ngibikan village in Yogyakarta after an earthquake in 2006, Prof Prawoto started with gotong royong, which he described as the spirit of working together.

The problem he faced was that villagers had tried to imitate building in large cities, but used low-quality cement, which was no match for a long-lasting tremor and many buildings collapsed.

Rather than simply rushing in to help rapidly build new houses, Prof Prawoto invited the community to participate in the planning and ended up radically changing his own plans after taking the time to listen. Instead of building stronger concrete structures as he had intended, his team used wood or other local materials and even redesigned windows and bathrooms to fit the styles that people preferred.

“It is very important to learn from them ... (to) not only invite them to participate, but also to change our concept. Sometimes we do not have the courage to do that; we impose ideas instead,” Prof Prawoto said. This focus on community involvement rather than dictating a solution is a large part of what led to his nomination for the prestigious Aga Khan Architecture Award.

In his other projects as well, whether it is in his native Indonesia or in Austria and Japan or other places he has worked, Prof Prawoto has applied gotong royong to great effect. “I start to collect information, to ask people, to sniff around, then to formulate some ideas, then to reconfirm it. In our contemporary situation, where everybody is obsessed with speed, we live in our time capsules; it is difficult to communicate. Without that common platform, it is difficult to talk about a sustainable community.”

He aptly summed it up with an African proverb: “If a man wants to go as fast as possible, then go alone; if a man wants to go as far as possible, then go with many.”

Architecture is only one element of the work of building. “The architect owes so many hands that make it happen ... It should be perceived as a collaborative work.” The concept applies equally in developed markets such as Singapore, Prof Prawoto said, even if people there think they know a lot.

The reality, he says, is that individuals are specialised creatures who need other people. (It was with that perspective that he created Wormhole, three bamboo mounds standing in front of the National Museum of Singapore, for the Singapore Biennale this year, with his team of six from Indonesia working with six staff from The Esplanade.)

While the musings of a renowned architect may seem rather esoteric to use in planning for the future in Singapore, the principles Prof Prawoto learned in his many years of working with communities around the world are universal.

Whether planning for an office building or roads or schools or healthcare institutions, or other vital parts of society, start with inviting the community to participate; ask questions and actually listen to what people prefer. Have the courage to change preconceived notions and plans. Simply pushing ahead on one’s own can be as unsuccessful as the empty new homes in post-tsunami Aceh.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

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