SINGAPORE: At first, Ms C (not her real name) thought it was "quite nice" to hear piano music coming from her neighbour's home during the "circuit breaker" period, when people were ordered to stay in to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Then about six months later, from October 2020, her next-door neighbour began playing the same song daily, between 7am and 11pm.
"She was waking us up every single day," Ms C, who is pregnant and in her 30s, told CNA.
It got so bad that she and her husband started hearing the song in their heads even when it was not being played. They live in a condominium in western Singapore.
Ms C said she tried several ways to resolve the issue, including reaching out to the neighbour. She claimed the woman was "quite adamant" that she could continue what she was doing and that it was "her right to play the piano".
After her husband spoke to the neighbour's husband, the woman switched to playing a second song, but did so over and over again, said Ms C.
When she contacted the condominium's managing body, she said she was told that they could not do anything, as there is no by-law stating a specific time when the neighbour could or could not play the piano.
"But the by-laws do say that all residents are given the right to peace and quiet … so if music is penetrating into my house, even with all the doors and windows closed, shouldn't that be an issue? But the MCST was just quite not helpful," said Ms C.
The sound of the piano can be heard loudly in the corridor just outside Ms C’s home, and at a lower volume in Ms C’s bedroom, according to audio clips that she provided to CNA.
There are other pianists in the condominium, but only their next-door neighbour creates such a noise, she said. According to Ms C, the neighbour who lives above the piano player also experienced the same issue.
"It's like to the point where - whenever there is peace and quiet, my husband and I will second-guess ourselves whether she’s playing the music, because we can hear the whole song in our head, because she plays it over and over again,” said Ms C.
“It’s actually the mental part that really got to us ... I think if she plays different songs throughout the whole day it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s because she plays the same exact piece the whole day that … I think we are going crazy.”
She had contacted CNA after reading about a trial between two condominium neighbours. The case involves a woman who took her upstairs neighbour to court in a private prosecution, alleging abusive behaviour such as repeatedly splashing water down into her home and deliberately bouncing a ball. No verdict has been reached and the trial continues in July.
READ: Condominium neighbours in court over woman's alleged splashing of water, bouncing of basketball
Ms C said she read up on her issue and thinks the police would tell such victims to solve the matter themselves. In the meantime, she mitigates the problem by turning up the volume on her television.
She is considering moving out.
NUMBER OF NEIGHBOURLY DISPUTES ROSE IN 2020
According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Law, which oversees the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) that handles neighbourly disputes, the number of such cases rose in 2020 from the year before.
Most of the disputes registered in 2020 were related to noise, unacceptable conduct or cigarette smoke, said the spokesperson.
She said the increase could be attributed to more residents staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the circuit breaker months, as well as increased awareness of CMC's services.
Of the cases that went to mediation, more than 80 per cent were resolved amicably, said the ministry.
The Ministry of National Development (MND) previously said that HDB received an average of 3,400 reports or feedback per year on "social disamenities" between neighbours from 2015 to 2019.
From January to September 2020, HDB received about 11,400 cases of feedback on noise from residents' daily activities. This is an increase from the 3,600 cases logged for the same period in 2019.
There were about 500 cases of feedback per month from January to March 2020, increasing to about 1,800 cases per month from April to July 2020, especially during the circuit breaker period when most people had to stay home.
The number of feedback cases fell to 1,300 per month from August 2020, likely due to people returning to work and school.
HOW THE LAW PROTECTS RESIDENTS FROM NUISANCE NEIGHBOURS
Lawyers told CNA that residents are protected from neighbourly acts that cause nuisance under two laws - the Community Disputes Resolution Act (CDRA), which prohibits causing unreasonable interference with a neighbour's enjoyment or use of his home, and the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
Mr Alvin Lim, a partner at WongPartnership in specialist and private client disputes practice, said the CDRA was specially enacted to address the problem of nuisance neighbours.
Examples of "unreasonable interference" by neighbours include: Causing excessive noise, smell, smoke, light or vibration, littering in the vicinity of the resident's home, obstructing the home, interfering with the person's movable property, conducting surveillance on the resident's home and trespassing.
"In addition, it is not uncommon for a neighbour's pet to be a nuisance," said Mr Lim. The CDRA also protects against a situation where a neighbour allows his pets to trespass on the resident's home and cause excessive noise or smell or to defecate or urinate near his home.
POHA, on the other hand, protects an individual from acts that cause harassment, alarm or distress, and a wayward neighbour may be subject to criminal sanctions and civil claims, said Mr Lim.
It is an offence for a person to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that cause a victim to suffer harassment, alarm or distress. If a resident makes a police report against their neighbour, authorities will investigate and decide whether to prosecute the neighbour.
If not, the resident can also consider filing a magistrate's complaint to pursue a private prosecution against the neighbour.
WHAT CAN RESIDENTS WITH NUISANCE NEIGHBOURS DO?
There are several avenues for residents to seek recourse. Mr Lim said the first port of call should be through mediation at the CMC.
This is a consensual and private process where a trained neutral third party - a mediator - helps the neighbours to understand each other's unhappiness and guide them to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.
"The collaborative and solution-orientated approach of CMC mediation has resulted in a high success rates," said Mr Lim. "It is also a cost-effective option, and can preserve the neighbourly spirit. If a solution can be reached at the mediation, the neighbours will record it in written form and agree to abide by their chosen solution."
However, if the neighbour does not want mediation or if it is unsuccessful, the victim may have no choice but to take the dispute to court. If a person files a police report but it is not deemed a police case, there are a few legal avenues open.
A person can file a magistrate's complaint and pursue a private prosecution if the neighbour has potentially committed a criminal offence, or file a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act if they have suffered harassment, alarm or distress.
Lawyer Joel Wong, an associate from Eugene Thuraisingam, LLP said a magistrate's complaint seeks punishment for the offender, while a civil suit seeks compensation.
In magistrate's complaints, the person filing it will have to bear his own legal costs, while costs in a civil suit are decided at the end based on "blameworthiness".
The same legal recourse is available regardless of housing type, Mr Lim said.
"However, the nature of high rise apartment living and greater common spaces in HDB flats and condominiums have the potential to give rise to more neighbourly disputes. For example, disputes may arise from a neighbour’s love for karaoke, cooking of pungent dishes or renovation of his unit, especially where these are done thoughtlessly or taken to an extreme," he said.
With condominium residents, rules and by-laws are an additional factor, as they may impact the rights or obligations of a neighbour and may involve the MCST.
For landed properties, some of the more common neighbour disputes involve landscaping issues, such as a tree that grows from one resident's home and overhangs his neighbour's. Mr Lim cited a case his law firm saw where the neighbour offered to engage a gardener to have the tree pruned, and the brewing dispute was resolved.
“If the parties’ differences cannot be reconciled with mediation, they may make an application to the Community Dispute Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) as an avenue of last resort to resolve their dispute,” said a spokesperson for the Law Ministry.
WHAT IF THE NEIGHBOUR DOESN’T COMPLY?
Lawyer Cory Wong of Invictus Law said the CDRT is a court specially created for the accompanying act.
Similar to the Small Claims Tribunal, the CDRT allows for simplified court processes with minimal fees, and is meant to provide easy access to the man on the street for such cases, he said.
However, a trade-off means that parties cannot be represented by lawyers in the CDRT.
After satisfying the legal requirement that states a neighbour is someone who lives in the same building or within 100m of the complainant, the next question is whether the interference is unreasonable and whether there is evidence to prove it, he said.
There are different types of "unreasonableness" and evidence to prove it depending on the type of interference. For example, noise disturbances will typically involve audio recordings and audiometers to record the loudness of the noise, but soft ambient noises that affect rest can also form a case.
If a person has evidence of the unreasonable interference, they can apply under the CDRA for various court orders: For damages such as compensation, injunctions such as a restraining order, specific performance such as compelling the neighbour to do certain things, apologies, or any necessary order.
Whether the court will grant the order is subject to factors such as the outcome of mediation between the parties, whether the evidence is sufficient, the impact on the neighbour, the tolerance level of a reasonable person living in Singapore, and whether it is fair to grant such a court order.
If the court order is granted and the neighbour complies, all is well, said Mr Wong of Invictus Law.
But if the neighbour disobeys the order, the resident can apply to the court for a special direction for the neighbour to comply with the disobeyed order. A breach of such a special direction can be punished with jail of up to three months, a fine of up to S$5,000, or both.
If the neighbour disregards this special direction as well, the resident can apply for an exclusion order for the neighbour to be excluded from his or her home. The granting of such an order is subject to very strict requirements, Mr Wong added, especially the impact on the neighbour and whether it is fair to grant such an order.
Breaching an exclusion order can be punished with up to three months' jail, a fine of up to S$5,000, or both.
ARE MOST DISPUTES RESOLVED?
However, Mr Wong said most of his firm's neighbour-dispute consultations did not go beyond the initial court order. Referring to the piano-playing incident, he said it "is certainly not a stretch to say that the reasonable person would definitely think twice about playing the piano loudly at home if it could attract a fine or jail time pursuant to a court order".
Mr Joel Wong from Eugene Thuraisingam, LLP, said whether getting a stiff penalty in court is enough to stop a neighbour depends on their personality and demeanour.
"In general, yes - an adverse court ruling is likely to deter the neighbour from causing further nuisance," he said.
Mr Lim gave a practical tip for the resident to keep a detailed and contemporaneous record of each and every nuisance act.
“The record should state the date, time, and description of the nature and severity of each incident, together with photographs, audio or video recordings and CCTV footage where appropriate,” he said.
“This is known as the evidence gathering process, and is an often overlooked aspect when a complainant is in the midst of a heated dispute and emotions are running high. This body of evidence is important as it will substantiate the complainant’s claims in court, if matters reach that stage.”
However, he said one issue is the perception of the time that the court process may take to “solve the problem”.
“It may seem ineffective to a neighbour on the receiving end of daily nuisance acts, whilst legal proceedings take their course in court,” he said. “Ultimately, the reality is that court sanctions or penalties may deepen divisions between neighbours and further deteriorate the already sour neighbourly relationship.”
He added: “It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a neighbour who is unhappy with the court outcome may commit other anti-social acts in order to ‘get back’ at the complainant or otherwise antagonise the complainant.
"While the law plays an important role in punishing undesirable behaviour, a holistic approach of building a strong community ethic and neighbourly spirit is required to address the problem of nuisance neighbours.”
The spokesperson for the Law Ministry said “a good degree of understanding, consideration and compromise goes a long way towards maintaining harmonious neighbour relations”.
“We encourage everyone to be more considerate towards one another, and communicate with their neighbours before disputes arise,” she said.