Blame not the NIMBY syndrome

Today Singaporeans are very much used to seeing and living alongside funeral wakes at the void deck. However, whenever a [future] funeral facility is situated within the local neighbourhood or community, more often than not, there would be resistance to such a plan. It does seem that as long as the presence and the sight of death and funerals are transient in nature, it can be accepted, but a more permanent infrastructure in the shape of a funeral parlour is problematic and offensive to the sensibilities of the local community, and the perceived damage it will do to property prices. Apparently, this contradiction which constitutes an integral part of urban living in Singapore is often explained simply by the Not-in-my-Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome.

The NIMBY syndrome has often been cited by the funeral profession to characterise the reluctance on the part of local residents and stakeholders to the siting of proposed funeral parlours within local communities. The more central and accessible it is, the more frowned upon it will be. The NIMBY syndrome seems to occupy a natural part in the larger narrative of the future challenges faced by the funeral profession in serving the needs of bereaved families in Singapore. However, such a view is problematic, to say the least. In fact, an overt and continued perpetuation of the NIMBY syndrome without understanding the fundamental issue at play here may do the funeral profession and its future more harm than good. There is certainly a view within the profession that such a mindset is an entrenched one, one that views choices and the consequent relationship between the living and the dead in stark binary terms. This is a woeful mistake and a mindset that the funeral profession needs to rectify.

Adopting the understanding of the NIMBY syndrome within the larger context of a “natural” aversion to death extolled through superstitions and taboos in a “typical Asian society” to explain the reluctance of local stakeholders to embrace death-related services and facilities inadvertently cast unwarranted insinuations and the burden of blame for the continued perpetuation of adverse attitudes towards dying, death and the funeral profession on local “self-interested” stakeholders. This is problematic as it seems to elevate the funeral profession onto a higher moral pedestal vis-à-vis local stakeholders and the communities that it seeks to engage. The creation of an unenlightened, unreasonable and short-termism “Other” through the NIMBY syndrome narrative further perpetuates the divide between the living and the funeral profession.

In other words, the funeral profession must do well not to further exacerbate the distance between the living and the dead – an artificial construct to begin with. The least it can do is not to point the finger at local stakeholders and the communities that it urgently needs to engage to fulfil its social and business objectives. Do not blame the NIMBY syndrome. It is merely the symptom and not the fundamental problem.

The fundamental issue at play here is not the mindset but understanding how this mindset came to be. At play here is the problem of death illiteracy in Singapore. For having one of the most educated populations in the world, Singapore is one of the most death illiterate societies. Death illiteracy is a lack of an informed awareness of the role that dying, death and the larger ecosystem plays in our individual and communal lives and death literacy is the normalisation of dying and death in our experiences as a human person, and the narrative of this nation-state.

Seen in this light, the manifestation of the NIMBY syndrome is the by-product of a death illiterate community. It is not the natural state of affairs. Ironically, modernity and advances in medicine have brought about complacency in the human mindset, insofar as our mortality is an abnormal and unexpected intrusion. We expect to live. Death has been shelved and we forgot that we will die and we need to die. Modernity has desensitised us to the realities of dying and the role that death plays in our lives and explaining the present malaise in our attitudes towards dying and death in our midst. Even as we live alongside death within our urban curated landscape, there is amnesia towards death and our own mortality. The irony, the hypocrisy and the tragedy.

A young healthy population at the cusp of independence is today faced with a differing set of priorities and needs. Singapore needs to educate itself on how to die again; how to die well, how to live with death in our midst and to embrace death as rightful ours. On a past necropolis, nation-building took shape and on the achievements of this modern nation-state lives a new necropolis. Death and the necropolis will be back to stake its claim, and the earlier we embrace it – in our hearts and communities – the better our quality of life will be, and the earlier the NIMBY syndrome will come to rest in peace. The living and the dead will live in peace alongside one another, enriching lives and communities in a more liveable Singapore.

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