Time to make noise about noise

As we finished the last of our Japanese lunch, we spoke about double-glazing.

“Maybe it will help,” I suggested.

“Yes, I should it get done before the next Deepavali,” Sam said, more to himself than to me.

He had related to me his annoyance with noise pollution and our public sector’s response. In the weeks leading up to the Hindu festival of Diwali, festival organisers had set up an event in an open field about 150 metres from his flat. The noise was unbearable, he said. “My spleen and bones were vibrating to the music.” This was despite closing all his windows.

“But there are two rows of shophouses between your block and the field,” I recalled. “I may be wrong, but can you even see the field from your window? There’s no direct line of sight, is there? The shophouses’ roofs would be blocking.”

“That tells you how loud the thing was.” It appears I had only agitated him even more. “Every night too.”

He wrote to the police several times. And each time, they wrote back to say that the event organiser had a licence and if they breached the conditions, the police would take action.

“What sort of reply is that? Did they think I was telling them they had no licence? That’s just another way of saying they’re not about to do anything.”

That he had time to write – repeatedly — to the police and the police had time to reply would tell you how long the noise event lasted.


It’s the licence!

The problem, as readers will have figured out, is the licence —  both the granting of it and the lax conditions associated with it.  This kind of noise pollution is ultimately traceable to government bodies.

I myself have a similar problem. My flat faces an open space too, as do many other Singaporeans’. We like flats with a bit of space in front of our windows, so we catch what little breeze we have and we don’t look directly into someone else’s bedroom or kitchen. However, we  quickly discover on moving in that the open space can become an epicentre of noise quakes.

I have the feeling that things have gotten steadily worse over the years. Flats have been built closer together and as population has risen, so has the profitability of events for organisers. Result? They organise them more frequently. Where my friend has the Diwali season to dread, I have the Chinese Ghost Month. But, perhaps one in three of the noise events I see around the area where I live is organised by the government. Stupid things like Family Day and Health and Wellness Day or such like, where on a Sunday morning at 9 a.m. sharp, the speakers blare into life urging residents to come down to join them in never-ending aerobics that go on for the rest of the day, “with prizes to be won”!


Traffic noise

The lead story in the Home section of the Straits Times, 16 Nov 2010, (Wanted: Sound ideas to cut traffic noise) says the National Environment Agency (NEA) “plans to hire a consultant in three months’ time to look into reducing noise from existing and future major roads and rail lines.” Apparently, “Past studies here and abroad have yielded few workable solutions for a land-scarce, high-rise city like Singapore.”

Indeed, I’ve often wondered how those who live in flats beside major roads tolerate the constant noise. And for decades, no one in authority seemed to have cared. I say this because the Straits Times’ story itself gives you proof that the problem never got the attention it deserved. Sure, they have taken noise into account in small ways — see list at right — but it is more than obvious that through all these years, no one has asked: Do these measures work? Instead, the planners seem to have used these “measures” as boxes to be checked off as a formality to show that they have done their jobs. (And the NEA has obviously and defensively given the list to the Straits Times to show how it has “cared” about this problem all these years.)

But, as I said, the list itself is proof of officials’ poor lack of attention to the problem:

Take #1 for example: multistorey carparks placed between highways and residential blocks. I’ve always known this is no solution for those whose flats are higher than the carpark. Am I to believe that planners didn’t know that?

Take #2: What is 30 metres worth? Has any planner stood 30 metres from a highway and checked how little noise reduction there is?

Take #3: “Trees are planted to shield homes of psychological relief.” I am laughing. Noise annoyance is not a psychological problem. You either hear it or you don’t.  More: “Trees attract birds, whose songs mask traffic noise.” I am rolling on the floor laughing.

Trees are very poor at reducing noise. There is really just one simple consideration when it comes to the effectiveness of a noise barrier: Mass. The more massive (heavier, denser) the material is between your ears and the source of noise, the more effective it is. Concrete is good. Solid lead is good too. A mountain of granite is even better. But don’t forget, sound waves can travel around barriers too.

There is an emerging technology of noise cancellation. You can google it to find out more about the principles involved. In principle, I think the technology should be applicable to traffic noise, since the latter spans a relatively narrow range of wavelengths and has a relative constancy and predictability. But I suspect the technology has never been scaled up to the level needed to deal with kilometres and kilometres of highways.

I will grant that traffic noise management is a difficult problem. On the one had, transportation is lifeblood to the economy. Then there is land scarcity, compelling us to build flats closer and taller.

What I will not grant is the utter inconsideration of Town Councils or whatever bodies in issuing permits for events. They should not only reduce the number of permits issued (by at least half) but also impose much more stringent conditions for noise levels. You don’t need to hire consultants to get this done. You don’t need super duper technology. You just need public officials who listen to residents. Or have they become deaf themselves?

7 Responses to “Time to make noise about noise”

  1. 1 ape 16 November 2010 at 22:07

    Ape can never understand the needs of event organisers to blast the speakers. Ape can tolerate frequent activities, be it festive celebrations, grassroots activities, promotions from private companies, etc. but is there a need to blast?

  2. 2 sgcynic 16 November 2010 at 22:55

    Just do the same to the MP while he’s meeting residents during his meet-the-people session. He will get the drift, unless he’s a deaf frog like Lim Swee Say.

  3. 3 ilcourtilcourt 16 November 2010 at 23:00

    Indeed I was rolling on the floor this morning in the office pantry as well, laughing at funny parts (“birds”!), and angry a damn right lies (“studies here and abroad have yielded few workable solutions”)

    Every single country but Singapore has noise barriers on the expressways, has norms for noise pollution and police enforces them, but not Singapore (except, maybe, around Oxley Rise)

    Noise is insidious, we talk louder, we turn up the volume on our TVs, the neighbours do the same; we do it again; we become deaf, we turn up the volume

    Noise makes us deaf and dumb, and unfortunately noise is everywhere in Singapore: I often work with a pair of unconnected closed headphones in the office: it masks partly my colleagues conversations and phone calls, but more importantly air-conditioning noise as well as PC fan noise; all these added noises would be above European standards for office construction; in Europe they would have to put sound dampening materials on those walls

    Without norms in the construction industry noise is everywhere even in the most expensive location: I try to avoid setting foot in Vivocity, The Cathedral of Noise; even the most expensive restaurants in Singapore are noisy (i am always reminded of my primary school canteen)

    There is simply no will: cheap construction means higher profits for the developers and the government


  4. 4 -M- 17 November 2010 at 00:44

    Noise level is always a difficult one to tackle, especially everyone’s perception is different and reaction can vary so much. What we need is proper dB guidelines, let science take the human factor out of it, if people complain that the noise from a certain event is too loud, then recording equipment need to be placed at specific points to ensure that the guidelines aren’t breached.

    With regards YB’s friend complaint, as with any complaints, if it is from one individual out of hundreds, it is going to be ignored. What needs to be done is to get a petition or equivalent together, a group’s voice is always louder than one.

  5. 5 heart murmur 18 November 2010 at 12:20

    If you live in HDB heartlands, the pap govt isn’t going to be too bothered about all your “petty” complaints about noisy town council events, crime, and what not.

  6. 6 Ronald Lim 19 November 2010 at 05:14

    Allow me to chip in to this discussion.

    I find myself extremely peeved at noise levels whenever I return to Singapore too and I fear that the issue is deeper and ingrained. I think we live in a culture that essentially does not appreciate the value of peace and serenity, and are increasingly numbed to noise. Which is why our noise dials are increasingly turned up.

    They begin with Credit Card roadshows in empty tents and a deejay that pumps out loud music to compensate for the few patrons they have, or the kids who play music aloud on buses (don’t they have earphones), or cafes that play music at a level louder than the conversations that take place in these premises. (Though I was delighted that TV mobile, a source of annoyance in my bus journey, has commercially folded)

    A friend of mine commented that young Singaporeans today are probably so acculturated to noise that they need something playing in the background, whatever they do. I think we’re suffering from a deeper cultural indifference to noise that includes ignorance of the joys and pleasures of peace and serenity.

  7. 7 Loch 19 November 2010 at 12:36

    And our higly paid and “talented” Mah Bow Tan says S’pore can accommodate 6.5 million population!!! Maybe we should build a flyover over his bungalow!!

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