Do more to help those who live with bad neighbours
With nearly 3,500 cases of neighbour disputes a year, it is time for the HDB to step up as lead agency to handle such spats.
The 17th floor of this block of Housing Board flats in Punggol looked normal and quiet. But I was there to chase a story about neighbour disputes and, within minutes, the tension was palpable.
I knocked on one resident's door. He showed me a video of his neighbour on his mobile phone. It showed a woman dragging a metal rod along the HDB flat corridor. "Be careful when you approach her for an interview," he warned.
Undeterred, I stood outside the flat people told me was the home of their difficult neighbour. As I was about to press the doorbell, the lift door opened.
A young woman stepped out and made a dash to her flat, avoiding the unit I was standing at. Her husband, who was waiting for her at the gate, jumped in shock when he saw me.
It was only when I approached them, saying I was a reporter, that they calmed down. I asked about their experiences living there. They replied softly, at times lowering their voices to a whisper, afraid they would be harassed by their neighbour for speaking to the press.
Their reaction underscored the apprehension they clearly felt towards their neighbour.
The couple is just one of many families who have been living in fear at the HDB block in Punggol for the past five years. They are concerned about the behaviour and actions of a common neighbour, who lives on the 17th floor, whom they dub the "neighbour from hell".
The neighbour in question is Madam Tan, a 51-year-old housewife and divorcee living with her adult son. Her neighbours accuse her of splashing oil at their doorsteps, playing loud music and stomping on the floor throughout the day and night. One neighbour even claimed she had left a bloody pig's ear on a shoe rack. Another said she had thrown a chair at him. A 56-year-old food stall operator said she is so fearful that she stays at her daughter's place whenever her husband works the overnight shift.
Almost every household on the 17th and 18th floors have installed closed-circuit television cameras. Residents say the cameras are the only way to protect themselves because there is nothing the police can do to help them other than advising them to make a Magistrate's Complaint.
The Punggol residents' woes show clearly how one difficult neighbour can affect the lives of many others nearby. What can people do in such situations?
It turns out there are agencies they can approach, but none that can really tackle the problem.
For example, when the difficult neighbour slammed doors and refuse chute bins loudly in the middle of the night, disturbing their rest, some neighbours complained to the HDB, the agency that builds and manages Housing Board flats. They were told that neighbour disputes do not come under its purview. The HDB then referred the complaints to the town council and police.
In 2014, a police report was made against Madam Tan, the first of many over the years. But the police said they could not arrest her because her alleged offences were non-arrestable. The police need a warrant to arrest someone who commits a non-arrestable offence.
For such a warrant to be issued, the complainant would first have to lodge a Magistrate's Complaint. A Magistrate's Complaint is filed when a person wishes to start a private prosecution against someone he believes has committed a criminal offence against him. The magistrate will decide if the case is worth pursuing and direct the police to investigate. In the process, the magistrate may issue a warrant for the alleged offender's arrest.
Last year, there were 1,785 Magistrate's Complaints filed.
Apart from a Magistrate's Complaint, people can turn to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT), which was set up to handle such disputes.
Other avenues for recourse include applying for voluntary mediation or for a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act.
These avenues apply to private property owners as well.
However, neighbours involved in disputes tell me that their neighbours do not turn up for mediation.
As for the tribunal, last year, the CDRT heard 108 cases of spats between neighbours, nearly double the 57 cases in 2017.
But residents question the practicality of going to court or tribunals to resolve disputes. While decisions by the magistrate and CDRT judges are legally binding, a complainant has to apply to the court for a Special Direction to ensure compliance if an order is breached. To do so, the complainant has to make a Magistrate's Complaint to privately prosecute the neighbour for breaching the Special Direction or start contempt of court proceedings against the neighbour - all of which would be a tedious and expensive process. Private property residents with neighbour disputes are arguably better able to take up such private suits.
But affected neighbours in the Punggol HDB case include blue-collar workers, such as a postal officer and one who runs a stall in a school canteen, who are hard-pressed to find the time or money to bring cases to court. This explains why many people stuck with a troubled neighbour feel their only recourse is to sell the flat and move.
In Madam Tan's case, it has emerged that she had a history of disputes with neighbours at her previous home in Toa Payoh.
Moving may be a solution for one set of neighbours - but can impose problems for others.
So what can be done?
While we cannot expect the police to handle every neighbour dispute, a lot more can be done in cases like this, where multiple reports have been made against the same person from various parties in different locations.
In 2014, I reported on a similar case where residents in a Pasir Ris HDB block suffered round-the-clock noise and harassment from a 33-year-old jobless man living on the second storey.
As in the Punggol case, complaints about loud banging coming from the flat had been made to the authorities since 2011. For almost five years, the Pasir Ris residents suffered before contacting the media.
Four days after the story was published, HDB officers inspected the man's flat and found damage on two walls inside. One damaged area was about the size of a basketball.
Police arrested the man under Section 7 of the Mental Health Act and referred him to the Institute of Mental Health for assessment. The Act allows police to apprehend "any person who is reported to be mentally disordered and is believed to be dangerous to himself or other persons".
A property manager at Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council told The Straits Times then that because the noise was within the flat, it was for "HDB or the police to follow up".
But why did it take so long for the authorities to follow up? Despite all the efforts of the residents, why were they not helped earlier?
In both cases, the media has served as a referral agency of sorts for these neighbour disputes.
Since the story on the Punggol neighbours was published last month, my mailbox has been flooded by readers keen to share their own "neighbour from hell" tales. Almost every day, I receive calls from readers inviting me to cover their stories and asking me to train the media spotlight on their plight.
But depending on the media cannot be the solution. In the end, government agencies need to act.
Having written about this issue sporadically for years, and having spoken to many stressed-out neighbours, it is clear to me that this is an issue that has fallen through the cracks, with no single agency empowered to take charge. This makes it easy for one agency to push the responsibility to another.
Town councils take care of common areas, not what happens within a flat. The police cannot step in for non-arrestable offences. The HDB may see its role as building and selling flats, not managing the occupants of the flats or relations among occupants.
Such attitudes, however, need to change. Given the nuisance and stress that a single neighbour can cause to others, there is a need to appoint a lead agency that can adopt a holistic approach to deal with this issue. This lead agency will need to rope in the HDB, town councils, grassroots agencies, the police and other community resources such as mental health support.
The number of neighbour disputes is not small: In 2017, the HDB received 3,493 instances of feedback regarding disputes between neighbours.
One possibility is for the HDB to be the lead agency for this.
It is, after all, the developer and master leaseholder of HDB flats, and residents are considered "lessees". Managing lessee relationships can be part of its mandate - and that includes stepping up to smooth relations between neighbours.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.