Commentary: Bad neighbour, call police? Let's rethink this

Commentary: Bad neighbour, call police? Let's rethink this

Pictures of a badly damaged exterior of a HDB flat in Toa Payoh have led netizens to call for the authorities to step in or haul the responsible neighbour to court. Legal firm founder Anil Lalwani discusses if that’s the best approach when a dispute among neighbours arise.

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The neighbour has allegedly destroyed the wall along the corridor. (Photo: Fann Sim)

SINGAPORE: Netizens have reacted with anger to pictures of a badly damaged exterior of a HDB flat at Block 55, Toa Payoh Lorong 5 widely believed to have been the result of actions by a resident in her 60s.

Photographs from the scene show paint on the walls of the corridor peeled off, exposing cement and brick, the front gate covered with talismans, and the windows and surrounding area littered with ash particles. 

An affected neighbour living next to the dilapidated unit whinged that it is like “living in a horror house”. 

Quite instinctively, the immediate reactions from netizens and readers alike have been to urge the authorities to step in.

Call the police, town council or the MP, some netizens say. A few have even suggested hauling her to court.

TOWN COUNCIL STEPPED IN

In a bid to quell the outrage, authorities responded last week that they’re aware of the situation, and that agencies are working together to help resolve the matter, according to the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council.

The town council also said the most important goal of ongoing concerted efforts is to “assist the couple, especially in (obtaining) professional help for the wife”.

“The police are monitoring if there are adequate grounds to compel her to seek professional help but their current assessment is that she poses no danger to herself or to residents,” they added.

These assurances from the authorities should have gone some way to assuage concerns but some netizens remain unsatisfied with the response.

Some blame the woman’s brother for not being “man enough” to take positive action.

A few even said to remove the woman from her flat and lock her up in an institution where she can do no more harm, calling her “mad” and “evil”.

In all these, the chants for authorities to step in and take some aggressive form of intervention remain just as loud, whether this be to begin legal proceedings to evict the woman or forcefully remove her.

Amid an angry mob, a few voices of reason have emerged, with some pointing out that the woman was clearly mentally disturbed and suggesting that the affected couple needed psychiatric and professional help.

CALL POLICE? SUE THEM? MAYBE NOT

It is disturbing to see that our natural reaction in such instances of neighbourly dispute is to call in the authorities for some heavy-handed intervention.

Should a neighbour’s dispute involve the police or end up in battles fought in civil suits against an annoying, inconsiderate neighbour?

Where a large number of affected residents turn to the law each year to solve their disputes with their neighbours, I would argue that such an approach should be discouraged.

Sure, it makes sense to enlist the assistance of neutral third parties to find ways to sensibly resolve matters, whether this be the town council, grassroot leaders or resident committee members.

If neighbours can work things out amicably without having to go to court, it would save time, avoid unnecessary costs and alleviate anxiety.

Sure, residents have recourse to greater help from the authorities like the assistance provided by the Community Mediation Centre, established in 1998, to resolve disputes without escalating cases to the Courts. These have seen a high success rate.

Singaporeans also have recourse to the State Courts’ Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal, which can initiate mediation and hear matters before parties reach the point of a civil suit. 

The Tribunal can then make binding decisions to help resolve the conflict. These may include compelling a respondent neighbour to pay for damages or extracting an apology or undertaking that solves the dispute. 

In serious situations, the Tribunal can grant a more draconian Exclusion Order, which can force the respondent neighbour to move out of their home.

But even after a resolution is found by way of the Tribunal issuing a ruling, what then remains of the rest of the days you have to live beside your neighbour, when the awkwardness of having hauled each other to a Tribunal and resorting to a higher authority to compel good behaviour remains?

Worse, if parties had pursued a civil suit where lawyers are usually engaged, they may incur high legal costs, without the complainant necessarily getting his or her desired outcome from the trial.

LEGAL ROUTE SHOULD BE LAST RESORT

The true test is whether any of these avenues could have been used by the affected residents at Toa Payoh effectively and the answer looks unlikely. 

Netizens and readers will collectively agree that the “Toa Payoh neighbour from hell” is not your typical case of a dispute between neighbours. The couple’s irregular behaviour clearly has far deeper roots, when many have pinpointed that they need psychiatric and medical help.  

Knowing then that this couple needs help, should the approach then be to pursue legal means? 

Is there no larger community purpose in finding a solution to alleviate disagreements between neighbours by going back to examine the root cause, especially in this case?   

Put simply, would you not be more forgiving and understanding if you knew that your neighbour was mentally unwell?

Granted that it is second nature to want to protect our turf and complaining is one way of alerting those around us, including the authorities, that we too need help in dealing with a neighbour who has his or her own set of mental health challenges to fight but whose actions affect us all. 

But surely the right response should be one from a collective community's standpoint to help those in trouble, rather than to haul them away?

In this case, it is understandable that the situation can be overwhelming for affected residents who are constantly troubled by their neighbour’s actions over a prolonged period of time.   

Perhaps the town council and the various agencies should extend their assistance not just to the troubling neighbour but also to those living near her to find preventive measures.

Efforts must also be extended to resolve situations like these with communication or with the help of the town council or grassroots organisation in helping to mediate.

In my view, this situation illustrates the need for us to understand our neighbour’s plight and resolve to live harmoniously with them, instead of escalating issues to the Courts, which can make disputes more acrimonious. 

The reality is our neighbours are a part and parcel of our community and we must expect unforeseen disputes to arise. Our first reaction must not be to call the police. 

Anil Lalwani is a practising lawyer at Lalwani Law Chambers.

Source: CNA/sl

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