Singapore

When utilities bill can make co-tenants' blood boil

Elderly flat mates came under the spotlight after a 70-year-old man was charged with the murder of his 62-year-old co-tenant last month. LINETTE HENG and VERNETTE CHIA (tnp@sph.com.sg) speak to other rental flat tenants on the issues they face

Sporting jet black hair, the retired cleaner, who usually wears bright pink sports shoes, seems much younger than her 80 years and is actively involved in community service.

Madam Hou Wah Cheng, a permanent resident, has been happy living in a one-room rental flat for most of her life.

But after her flatmate died more than a year ago, she has been concerned about her accommodation options.

Under HDB rules, she is not allowed to be the sole tenant of a rental flat.

Madam Hou, who has never married and who lost contact with her siblings, was initially worried about staying with a stranger.

To her relief, an acquaintance of the same age, Madam Lee Ah Sim, was also looking for a place to stay.

The two elderly women have been staying together under HDB's Joint Singles Scheme (JSS) in a one-room flat in Pipit Road for the past year.

Madam Hou told The New Paper in Mandarin: "We were both born in the year of the ox and I joked with her it could be tough with the two of us in the same flat.

"But we have kept out of each other's business and have not got into any quarrels so far."

As Madam Lee is hard of hearing and has a failing memory, Madam Hou has been a helpful companion, especially when they watch TV programmes.

"Sometimes I have to repeat the jokes to her," said Madam Hou.

Madam Lee agreed: "She is really much sharper than me."

In a Parliamentary reply in February, Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon said that most tenants under the JSS are able to live together amicably.

Over the past two years, there were 235 requests for a change in tenant. (See report, above right.)

MUTUAL RESPECT

Dr Koh said: "The key is mutual respect and tolerance. However, there are instances where tenants are unable to get along and request for a change of tenant."

Members of Parliament Tin Pei Ling and Dr Lily Neo said they have had several residents approaching them for help to apply for a change in co-tenant.

But they also said that scheme has its merits - elderly tenants can look out for one another and share their utilities bill. (See report, right.)

Most rental flat residents approached by TNP said they have heard of flatmates who have trouble getting along.

Madam Liew Kum Sim, 73, who has been living with the same flatmate in a rental flat in Bendemeer Road for the past 10 years, said she has been tolerating her flatmate's behaviour over the years.

The retiree claims that her flatmate, also aged 73, has been throwing her medication away. They also have disagreements over splitting the utilities bill.

The flatmates had met through a mutual friend and applied for a rental flat together.

Madam Liew said in Mandarin: "When two people who don't know each other live together, there are bound to be arguments. We never had a violent argument and she's lucky I've mellowed over the years."

Another resident, retiree Irene Lim, 67, whose flatmate is temporarily staying elsewhere, said she has had a bad experience with strangers in the past.

She said: "A few years ago, I had a flatmate who slept with a knife next to her. I moved away after two days. I'm so glad to be staying alone now."

Madam Hou admitted that there were occasions when she felt frustrated with Madam Lee about the utilities bill. It is now higher compared to when she was staying with her previous flatmate.

"But I have a picture of Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) next to my bed. Every time I think of arguing, I will think twice," she said.

"We are the final stage of our lives. There is no point being unhappy with one another."

We were both born in the year of the ox and I joked with her it could be tough with the two of us in the same flat. But we have kept out of each other's business and have not gotten into any quarrels so far.

- Madam Hou Wah Cheng (below, in pink) with flatmate Madam Lee Ah Sim

Helpful to have someone to talk to: MP

Jalan Besar Member of Parliament Lily Neo occasionally hears from rental flats tenants who claim they might get killed or might kill their flatmate.

Their conflicts usually arise over issues like cleanliness, noise or the sharing of bills.

Dr Neo would help them to appeal to HDB for a change in tenant.

But she concedes it is not easy as they would each have to find another tenant who qualifies for a rental flat.

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, who has had co-tenants who cannot get along, said appeals to HDB are not always successful as HDB has to assess the merits of each case.

She said grassroots leaders who are neighbours will help to mediate between the squabbling tenants.

She thinks tension between co-tenants are at times inevitable.

She said: "Many who live in rental flats are often in complex situations. Also, some seniors might be feeling low as they approach the end of their lives.

"Living with someone who has a different temperament or habit can be challenging."

But both MPs, who have many elderly residents in their ward, said the scheme has its benefits, especially if the elderly tenants are able to look out for another.

Dr Neo said: "As a medical doctor, I can attest that loneliness (among the elderly) can be a problem, too. Having someone to talk to can help prevent depression.

"Tenants can also keep one another company, help each other when there are urgent problems and even share the cost of bills."

In a Parliamentary reply in February, Dr Koh Poh Koon, Minister of State for National Development, said there were no plans to allow singles to rent a flat alone.

Dr Koh said: "The Joint Singles Scheme ensures prudent use of limited public rental flats to help those in need."

An HDB spokesman said that single applicants who have not identified a flatmate on their own will be provided with a list of single persons who are similarly looking for flatmates.

The applicants can contact those on the list and assess if any of them are suitable to join in the application.

By the numbers

398 Number of people applying for rental flats under the Joint Singles Scheme (JSS) last year. There are a total of 12,000 rental flats under the JSS. There have been 235 requests for a change in tenant over the past two years

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