Only Strong Hearts Need Apply

Nasty remarks, unreasonable demands and occasional violence – these are all in a day’s work for the frontline staff at Community Mediation Centres.

It could have been a scene right out of a Hong Kong drama serial. A woman, accused of being the third party in a marriage, had made a complaint to the Subordinate Courts after the wife assaulted her.

Both parties were ordered to go for mediation. During a heated session at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC), the woman struck the wife in the face.

Centre Manager Diana Heng had to call in security and halt the session. The fracas was reported to the courts and both women were ordered to go for another mediation appointment.

Dealing with high-strung members of the public who can turn violent is something Ms Heng has to be prepared for. She is not a mediator, but she schedules mediation sessions for disputing parties and mediators, who are all volunteers.

In her 14 years at the CMC, Ms Heng has at times been the punching bag of frustrated parties in conflicts. Her job is not for the faint-hearted because sometimes when Ms Heng calls to arrange appointments with disputants, “they start complaining and shouting.”

There are currently two CMCs; one at The Treasury and the other at the Subordinate Courts, where Ms Heng works with another frontline colleague.

Operated by the Ministry of Law, CMCs provide mediation services to members of the public who wish to resolve disputes without going through costly legal proceedings.

At a cost of $5 in administration fee upon registration, parties get to sit down with mediators to discuss solutions to their conflicts.

Parties either sign up for mediation on their own or are referred to the CMCs by the police, town councils and other agencies. In other cases, parties are ordered by the courts to do so, such as the wife-mistress tussle.

Paving the way to peacemaking

Most cases that come to CMCs are quarrels between neighbours, says senior Centre Manager Tan Chong Yang, who has been coordinating mediation sessions for the last 12 years. He works with two other frontline staff at CMC Central within The Treasury.

The number of mediated cases at CMCs has been increasing yearly; there were already 373 cases seen from January to June this year.

“The public has become more demanding,” Mr Tan observes. He often receives calls from disgruntled parties, insisting that the CMCs conduct investigations and “take action” against the other side. At times like these, all Mr Tan can do is listen patiently to the caller and explain politely, but firmly, that CMCs do not have enforcement or investigative powers.

Once, he was even yelled at on the phone by a member of the public who threatened to report his “unsatisfactory performance” to a higher authority.

The public officer of more than 40 years – he started out as a clerk in the Ministry of Education and later worked at the Singapore Land Authority, before joining CMC – takes such unpleasant experiences in his stride. He chuckles: “I’m just doing my work, serving the community. It’s quite interesting to help them solve their problems.”

Besides taking the heat from frustrated members of the public, CMC officers also devote much time and effort to the administrative work for every case. Though they do not attend mediation sessions, which can stretch beyond office hours, they have to stay back to time the sessions, send the mediators off, and then complete some paperwork before calling it a day.

CMC officers also need to be alert to uncommon behaviour among those who turn up for mediation, for example, those who mumble to themselves. To prevent any violence during mediation sessions, no one is allowed to bring helmets, walking sticks or umbrellas into mediation rooms.

For all the trouble CMC officers go through, “it’s quite a thankless job because the thanks go mainly to the mediators,” admits Ms Heng.

No pain, no gain

Still, happy endings in some cases do motivate the staff to continue in what they do.

“Sometimes I feel so touched, especially when once, the disputing parties came out of mediation hugging each other,” Mr Tan says.

As work at the CMC is full of ups and downs, for Ms Heng, separating work from personal life was a challenge when she had just started working there.

“In the beginning I did have second thoughts about continuing,” she says. “Every day I went home and thought: why are people fighting? I felt very upset and depressed... Now, I have learnt not to take things personally.”

She has also gleaned a precious life lesson. “We should not be fighting over little things… There are better things to do with our lives.”



For those who wish to sign up for mediation, you can contact the following:
CMC (Central) – 6325 1600
CMC (Subordinate Courts) – 6536 9665 or
Submit your enquiry online

    Sep 18, 2012
    Chen Jingting
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