2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Monmouth College

Rojak in Social Interaction:
Well-being in Singapore’s Unique ‘Third Places’

Mentor: Kristin Larson, Professor of Psychology
Students: Kelci Foss, Stephanie Saey, and Elizabeth Hippen


Our visit to the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore included a presentation by their head Clinical Psychologist on their social approach to addressing mental illness and wellness.

Project Abstract

The Monmouth College research group spent 3 weeks in Singapore, investigating how residents, who often live in government-developed high-rise housing, utilize “third places”.  Singapore has a thriving “informal public life” that occurs in settings referred to as “third places” (Oldenburg, 1999), which can mitigate isolation and improve individual well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Oldenburg (1999) describes three crucial spaces in a person’s life:  the first place is their home, the second place is their work, and third places are public locales of social interaction.    The goal of this project was to understand Singaporeans’ use of the third place as a means of social interaction, a coping strategy to alleviate stress and a way to increase well-being.  Each student addressed a distinctive third place, including Hawker Centres (food courts), Kopitiams (traditional coffee shops) and recreational parks and plazas.  A collaboration with a local student researcher resulted in adding another third place, a shopping mall, where locals socialize and avoid the heat.  In order to become familiar with the cultural context, the research team visited religious sites, observed a Dang Ki ceremony with a local shaman healer, stayed in a high-rise apartment, and ate their meals in neighborhood food courts.  The students engaged in immersive experiences related to each of Singapore’s dominant cultures (Chinese, Malay and Indian) in order to more fully understand the social and cultural context of their research. The team also investigated wellness in Singapore by visiting the Institute of Mental Health, the psychiatric wing of a hospital and the counseling center at Singapore Management University.  The students also took an excursion to Kuala Lumpur, visiting religious, governmental and farming sites, to better understand the Malay culture.  The research team is currently analyzing the data from the surveys they collected, in the context of what they learned from informal interviews with residents of Singapore. 

The students were invited to attend a local Dang Ki ceremony. They witnessed a Chinese shaman providing healing and guidance by channeling a god and interacting with the people from the surrounding neighborhood.

Kelci Foss 

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Singapore and Malaysia due to the Freeman Foundation. This trip allowed me to gain a great understanding of a totally different culture. We were able to gain insights on current issues such as the stress levels of Singapore related to the location and business atmosphere.   I specifically was interested in investigating the role that plazas and recreational areas played within stress levels.  I hoped to see that these third places would be able to possibly lower the stress levels within Singaporeans. We were able to conduct this research by passing out surveys and interacting with persons visiting the locations. We were also able to learn about other issues that are present within the Asian culture such as the use of migrant workers within the community.  Throughout this trip we were also able to make a great number of connections with persons from Singapore and Malaysia that were helpful in both the professional and academic sense, but we were also able to make a great number of close friends throughout the trip.  We were able to develop great academic and professional skills such as the ability to work as a research team and the ability to conduct research in an area where language is not always a primary language.  


While in Kuala Lumpur, the students visit a privately owned homeless and elderly shelter.

Elizabeth Hippen 

My trip to Singapore provided by the Freeman grant opened up brand new opportunities and made all of us think about what we wanted to pursue after our undergraduate experience. We were able to visit the Institute of Mental Health and Tan Tok Seng Hospital to understand a different country and culture’s healthcare model and what they believe. We were able to have a better understanding of how mental health affects Singapore’s population and how it is viewed as insignificant and unimportant. Our research studied perceived stress and how it relates to Third Places because of Singapore’s competitive school and job market. I studied Hawker Centers and how they could be utilized as Third Places. We were able to collaborate with a local SMU student who helped us collect surveys and answer any cultural questions we had. By having all of the great experiences in Asia, it has helped me realize how I want to pursue my graduate studies in Medical Anthropology which I believe will complement my undergraduate Biopsychology studies. For our research, we have conducted our data analysis and now need to decide how to write the paper and make a poster.


The first location for data collection was a residential Hawker Center/Food Court. Student researcher, Stephanie Saey, asks patrons about the time they spend there and distributes the surveys.

Stephanie Saey  

The multicultural mecca that is the island of Singapore has much to offer.  While extremely diverse, there is a rich sense of national pride that holds the city-state together as one. This pride is palpable, though is often accompanied by a high level of stress among inhabitants of the island. Singapore is continuously expanding upward in population and in living arrangement, and there is a need for social interaction outside the home to alleviate the stress of living in such small, isolated spaces. Our research group was interested in studying how Singaporeans relieve stress; more specifically, we wanted to know if the social interaction facilitated by attending “third places” in Singapore (coffee shops, Hawker Centers, parks) is related to stress relief. My specific area of study was the coffee shops, or kopitiams. Thanks to the Freeman Grant, we had the incredible opportunity to carry out our study and experience the lives of Singaporeans firsthand during our visit to Singapore.  I was able to experience locals interacting at a kopitiam firsthand, and collect data in regards to stress level and place attachment by distributing surveys.  In addition, my time in Singapore allowed me to hone some very useful skills related to my professional and academic development, and to foster meaningful relationships with local partners.