Neighbours' six-year dispute over mystery smell
You can't choose your neighbours, and when disputes arise, the acrimony can last for years. In this case, one side says she gets multiple visits from officials because her neighbour claims there is an acrid smell. Officers have found nothing. Mediation has failed. HARIZ BAHARUDDIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) reports and finds out what feuding neighbours can do
In the six years since she moved to her flat, Madam Mok Keat Har and her family have been visited by a variety of government agencies.
HDB officials, town council staff, officers from the National Environment Agency (NEA), the police and even the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) have been to the Geylang HDB maisonette.
All because of a smell that a neighbour insists permeates from her flat.
The agencies have found nothing.
Madam Mok says the visits are the result of a dispute with a neighbour and that the neighbour is making complaints to harass her and her family.
She adds that the officials' visits are upsetting.
Last month, the two neighbours signed an undertaking after mediation at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC).
According to the agreement, the next time Madam Mok's neighbour feels something is amiss, she should arrange with Madam Mok to visit her flat to trace the source of the smell instead of calling the different agencies on her.
But within days, officials were back at Madam Mok's flat for yet another visit.
An exasperated Madam Mok, 49, says: "We have done nothing wrong and even accepted the agreement.
"I don't know what to do when my neighbour doesn't adhere (to the agreement)."
The situation was especially difficult two years ago after her father was diagnosed with cancer. Madam Mok was then already struggling with her mother's cancer.
"I was rushing from work to the hospital where my father was receiving treatment. And then I would rush home because my frazzled mother would say the police were at my flat," she says.
Madam Mok lives in the flat with her husband, parents and a son, 13.
"The whole situation has made our whole family paranoid and it's very unpleasant," she says.
"We do burn incense and my husband smokes at home, but there is nothing illegal about doing all of that."
She even gave the agencies the incense cones that her family uses and said her husband smokes in her flat, not along the corridor.
We asked the various agencies, ranging from the housing board, the neighbours' town council, CNB, the police and NEA about the visits.
CNB said that it "views every piece of information seriously and thorough investigations will be carried out".
The NEA said it could not comment due to operational sensitivities. Other agencies declined comment.
The dispute started within months of them moving in, says Madam Mok.
"First came complaints about the clothes we hung out to dry along the common corridor, then the plants and my son's bicycle.
"Then came complaints of second-hand smoke," she says.
Until then, her parents had been exchanging pleasantries with her neighbour's husband.
But all that changed when the visits by HDB and town council officials intensified.
"One of the officials let slip it was my neighbour. I don't understand why she keeps doing this," she says.
The New Paper on Sunday spoke to the neighbour and she readily said that she was the one who contacted the authorities.
She is also named in the copy of the mediation documents Madam Mok has.
"Can't you smell that strange smell?" insists Madam Foo Ching Lian, who is in her 50s.
At that point, this reporter was unable to detect any unusual scents in the air.
But Madam Foo says the smells have ruined her own family's peace and well-being.
Madam Mok, who runs her own business, says the constant stress has taken a toll.
Her parents, both of whom are retired, say they are constantly worried about people visiting their flat and the suspicious looks other neighbours would give them.
She says: "I have done nothing wrong, but I went for the mediation agreement anyway because I wanted to settle this. I don't know what to do."
Neighbour: 'Smell' affected our health
She describes it as "not your usual smell".
When asked what kind of smell it is, Madam Foo Ching Lian says: "It's a burning smell. It is very thick and will enter my house from the front and from the back."
Madam Foo is a retiree and spends most of her time at home.
She says the strange odour started about five years back, when Madam Mok Keat Har's family moved into their HDB block in Geylang.
That same complaint has been repeated since 2010. It is there as a reason for the mediation, a copy of which Madam Mok showed TNPS.
Madam Foo says the thick smell has affected the health of her husband and three adult children.
She says: "Every one of us has fallen sick more often because of the smell. We cough and get fever, sometimes even flu."
Madam Foo says she had approached her neighbours to ask about the smell, but they denied burning anything.
Concerned, she called different government agencies to complain about the smell.
Although several officers have paid visits to Madam Mok's unit, Madam Foo says the smell persists.
She then decided to go to the Community Mediation Centre to sort it out with her neighbour.
After a discussion that lasted about three hours, an agreement was reached between the two.
Madam Mok would allow Madam Foo to visit whenever she smelt something strange, provided Madam Mok was present and Madam Foo's husband accompanied her.
But early this month, Madam Mok says she was still visited by government officers.
Madam Foo says she called the agencies again because the smell was disturbing her in the afternoons.
She says: "The smell gets very bad in the afternoons, but that is when my husband is not at home.
"So I had to call them (the government agencies) again."
Mediation a platform for settling disputes
In 2014, there were 571 cases mediated by the Community Mediation Centre - a 14.6-per cent increase from 2010.
Out of these, more than half of them were disputes involving neighbours.
Director Steven Lam of Templars Law, 47, says: "Mediation is a way to achieve an out-of-court settlement and a chance to come up with a creative way of solving the problem by asking for remedies not recognised by the law."
For disputes such as the one between Madam Foo Ching Lian and Madam Mok Keat Har, Mr Lam says mediation is a platform to settle problems.
And it is voluntary.
But agreements made in mediation are not always legally enforceable.
Miss Gloria James, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta, says: "It is not like a court order where you can file a contempt of court.
"Unless it is an order of court, at least the recourse for breach would be contempt of court proceedings."
In March 2014, Parliament passed the Community Disputes Resolution Bill.
The Bill allows residents to take unruly neighbours to a Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) when mediation fails to resolve the dispute.
Compared to community mediation, which occurs on a grassroots level, the CDRT has more legal teeth.
If the agreement signed during community mediation session is breached by one party, the judge can convene a court hearing and impose court orders against the offending party.
Breaching these court orders is a crime and can result in penalties, including exclusion orders which can force the neighbour to move out.
It can be an option for Madam Mok or Madam Foo if they decided to pursue the matter further.
By the end of last year, a total of 27 cases had proceeded with actual court filings at the CDRT.
When contacted last night, Madam Mok said she will be opting for this recourse.
- Additional reporting by Ng Jun Sen