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He was shocked when he saw the state of his Jurong West four-room flat earlier this month.

What used to be home for his family of five became a "dormitory" for at least 20 Chinese nationals after he rented out the Housing Board flat to six subtenants about seven months ago, he said.

The businessman in his 30s, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ahmad, told The New Paper: "When I looked inside (the flat), I saw 40 to 50 pairs of shoes. I went in and saw at least three bunk beds in each bedroom.

"The storeroom had been converted into a bedroom and there was even a wooden partition separating the dining area from the living room to create another bedroom," he said.

Even his own bedroom was not spared, with his $5,000 mattress shoved behind the bedroom door to make way for the bunk beds.

He said: "My wife was very emotional when she found out (about what happened to our flat)."

Mr Ahmad and his family, who had been in Penang, Malaysia, to look for business opportunities since last July, returned to Singapore to settle housekeeping issues with his subtenants.

Under HDB guidelines, a maximum of nine subtenants are allowed in a four-room flat. (See report on right.)

Mr Ahmad had applied successfully to the HDB to rent his flat to six subtenants before leaving Singapore. He said that he did not know much about them, except that they were work-permit holders from China.

He rented out his flat to them for $2,700 a month.

"They seemed okay. I trusted them based on the documents they produced. They said they just wanted a roof over their heads," he said.

Mr Ahmad later found out from his neighbour that she did not realise what was happening to his flat until three months ago when she saw people with "unfamiliar faces spitting along the corridor one morning".

The illegal subtenants were "very quiet" and "always kept the doors and windows closed", the neighbour told him.

AGREEMENT

Concerned about the illegal subletting and wanting to save his flat from being damaged by the subtenants, Mr Ahmad made one of them, Mr Liu Hongcai, sign an agreement to evict the illegal ones.

Mr Ahmad also made a police report and alerted HDB to the matter.

HDB can take action against flat owners who breach the subletting rules. (See report on far right). But TNP understands that Mr Ahmad is not in trouble because he acted swiftly once he found out about the illegal subletting.

An HDB spokesman told TNP that checks showed that Mr Ahmad had evicted the unauthorised subtenants following the board's advice.

"We are glad that he has taken positive and effective steps towards resolving the problem," the spokesman said.

The illegal tenants started moving out once they found alternative lodging. By last Monday, all had left, including the legal ones.

But Mr Ahmad's flat was left in bad shape. There were greasy kitchen tabletops and grimy toilet walls. Bunk bed frames were left stacked in the bedrooms.

The wooden partition had been removed, but there were marks from the tape used to hold it up.

Amid the mess was a stack of fliers handwritten in Chinese seeking subtenants for the flat, which was described as having "good Internet connection and in pleasant surroundings".

Now, all Mr Ahmad wants to do is to "salvage whatever that can be salvaged".

He said that it will cost about $15,000 to fix his flat and this includes replacing the cooking utensils, which can no longer be used by Muslims.

The amount is about 80 per cent of the $18,900 rent he collected from subletting his flat, he said.

Of the six original subtenants, only two were left when TNP visited the flat two weeks ago.

Both claimed to have nothing to do with the illegal subletting, instead pointing one of the original six, a man they knew only as Mr Zhang, as the "mastermind".

"The flat owner is a victim, but so are we," Mr Liu Hongcai, a welder in his 40s, told TNP in Mandarin.

He said Mr Zhang rented out rooms to others illegally so he could earn extra money.

AWARE

Mr Liu and the other subtenant said they were aware of what Mr Zhang was doing, but kept out of it as they did not want to get involved.

Mr Liu said: "Zhang came back from China a day after the flat owner confronted us, but went missing on the same day."

He claimed that he had tried contacting Mr Zhang since he disappeared, calling him as many as 40 times a day without success.

With a shrug of his shoulders, Mr Liu said: "To be honest, such situations are common in sublet flats. It's just a matter of whether you're lucky enough not to get caught."

He claimed that he did not receive a single cent from the illegal subletting.

"Of course, he pocketed all the money. If you were him, would you be silly enough to share the money with me?" he said.

The other tenant, who wanted to be known only as Mr Liu, said: "Zhang made us the scapegoats and now that he is nowhere to be found, we have to clear up his mess."

Mr Ahmad said of their claims: "My view is that they lived in the same place. Even if it's without their consent, it is with their knowledge.

"I will never sublet my flat again. There is no trust left."

My wife was very emotional when she found out (about what happened to our flat).

- Mr Ahmad

ONUS ON FLAT OWNERS TO ENSURE RULES NOT FLOUTED

Flat owners like Mr Ahmad could find themselves in trouble with the Housing Board for illegal subletting, for which they can be fined or have their flats taken back.

Under the Housing and Development Act, those convicted of illegal subletting can be fined up to $5,000, jailed of up to six months, or both.

Subtenants who breach the subletting rule by further subletting the flat to others will be blacklisted and disallowed from renting HDB flats for five years, said an HDB spokesman.

He said: "We will not hesitate to take stern action against the flat owner if the subletting rules are flouted."

He emphasised that flat owners have "the responsibility to ensure that the flat is sublet only to authorised subtenants and that there is no overcrowding".

"A subletting contract is a private agreement between flat owners and their subtenants. Any disagreement between the parties is a private dispute, which will have to be resolved between both parties," the spokesman added.

Real estate lawyers contacted by The New Paper said that ignorance will not absolve flat owners of the offence.

Mr Norman Ho from Rodyk & Davidson said the issue is "clear-cut".

He said: "The one who will get into trouble is the flat owner. He doesn't have to do checks, but if things happen, he cannot say that he doesn't know."

Anyone who comes across suspected cases of unauthorised subletting or misuse of flats can call HDB at 1800-555-6370 (Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 5pm).

HDB SUBLETTING CRITERIA

WHO CAN RENT

HDB FLATS

Subtenants must be Singaporeans, permanent residents or foreigners legally residing in Singapore and holding valid work, student, or long-term social visit passes.

The passes must be valid for at least six months from date of subletting application.

MAXIMUM NUMBER OF SUBTENANTS

One-room and two-room flats: Four

Three-room flats: Six

Four-room flats and bigger: Nine

SOURCE: HDB

BY THE numbers

Number of suspected cases of unauthorised occupiers last year

Number of flat owners taken to task: Five

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