I am seriously concerned by the new Housing and Development (Amendment) Bill, which was read in Parliament for the first time on 12 March 2015. As Parliament is dominated by one Party these amendments will be passed with no real debate or oversight, that is they will be rubber stamped. Yet 87% of our citizens live in HDB so any amendments have far reaching consequences.
Firstly the HDB are given new sweeping powers to enter your flat without a warrant in cases of imminent threats to public safety and public health. They would be the judge of whether there is an imminent danger and they would only have to show subsequently that they acted “in good faith”. If the owner is not there they can enter and demolish any obstacles in their way or remove anything that impedes their investigation, like pulling up the floor or kitchen units to carry out their investigation. HDB would not have to pay compensation to the owners even if they had made a mistake, provided they acted in good faith.
Secondly even if there is no imminent danger HDB will be able to enter your apartment after a 24 hour notice period without your permission if they obtain a warrant. Again they would be allowed to use force to gain entry and to remove any obstacles that impede an investigation. No compensation would be paid provided HDB acted in good faith and followed the rules.
Thirdly, HDB gains new police-like powers to enter an apartment, make audio and video recordings and seize evidence if it believes the flat is being illegally sub-let or the owner has broken any of the other rules applying to purchasers. Under the new amendments it will be an offence not to answer the HDB officer’s questions and those refusing to answer can be compelled to do so by a magistrate. The HDB officer cannot compel you to give evidence if that would incriminate you in a criminal offence but without legal representation how many residents will be aware of their rights?
In the case of entry to effect repairs the Government has justified the new amendments by saying that they are necessary to deal with the problem of owners who refuse to cooperate or to put right problems they are causing, like water leaking from their flat and damaging the ceilings of the flats below. Khaw Boon Wan has said that in one-third of cases of ceiling leaks the problem takes over three months to fix.
However I can see several problems both with HDB
- The HDB has a conflict of interest in investigating any problems, as it was responsible for the construction of the flat. Quality failings in construction may be blamed on the renovation contractor and the householder will be forced to bear the cost of the repairs. There are many leaks and cracks in areas that are common and have no upstairs neighbour. There should be an independent entity involved in investigations.
- There are good reasons why obtaining a warrant should be necessary. Just as the police are required to obtain a warrant before carrying out a search, a warrant should be necessary for HDB to enter an apartment without the owner’s permission in all but the most serious emergency. While obtaining warrants may seem like an obstacle to efficiency, the process is supposed to act as a check on the powers of the police by requiring an independent authority (a magistrate) to sign off on the request. In cases where it goes ahead without obtaining a warrant, HDB should be held to account subsequently for the consequences should the emergency not exist or not be caused by a problem in the apartment to which forced entry has been obtained.
- A 24-hour notice period is too short in cases where the owner may be away or hospitalized. More effort should be made to contact him or her.
- HDB should not be given police powers to interrogate suspects and to seize evidence in cases where it suspects a breach of the rules. HDB officers are not police and do not have the necessary training. Also there is a clear conflict of interest just as in 1 above because the HDB will be bot investigator and judge as to whether the owner has breached its rules. Only the police should carry out such investigations.
Despite the current problems with non-cooperative flat owners and breaches of HDB rules, the proposed amendments give too many powers to the HDB with insufficient safeguards. We need to ensure that these are in place before we give HDB new powers. In the case of serious breaches of the rules the police should be the appropriate investigating authority and not the HDB. The PAP Government already possesses too many powers over citizens’ lives and acts in a high-handed and autocratic manner to which Singaporeans have few rights of appeal.
The amendments do contain some sensible suggestions such as more serious penalties for using non approved contractors and I would like to see stricter vetting of approved contractors.
I have said before that Singaporeans should be given the freehold of their HDB as part of a process of transferring power from the state to the individual and to further the goal of a property owning middle class. This has been part of Reform Party policy since 2011. A new Government should also set up a Housing Ombudsman with special powers to hold HDB to account and set aside their decisions and/or pay compensation to homeowners in cases where their rights have been abused.