Compassion Before Courts

The article in TODAY – “Town councils to engage residents before prosecuting them: State Courts” (9 March 2018) seems to be announcing “new measures to help town councils manage” defaulters.

In the story, it is stated that “From next month, as part of new protocols, town councils will have to negotiate and engage with the residents involved in such cases before starting criminal proceedings as a last resort.”

It goes on to say that town councils are “required to issue at least two notices to a resident who does not pay S&CC, before issuing a statutory demand.”

So, does it mean that under the current protocol, town councils do not negotiate and engage with the defaulting residents before taking them to court; and town councils do not issue at least two notices to the defaulting resident before issuing the statutory demand?

Given that Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) charges are generally between $20 per month (1 room) to $74 per month (5 room), it stands to reason that many of the current defaulters are not paying their fees because of financial hardship.

It is thus rather troubling that the number of residents taken to court for S&CC arrears have more than doubled in the last three years: from 2,494 cases in 2015 to 6,335 in 2017.

Does the sharp increase in prosecuted cases indicate that town councils are just not doing enough to help their residents before throwing them to the criminal court?

In fact, the article reveals that “A vast majority, or nearly 86 per cent, of these cases prosecuted under the criminal process were resolved by composition or settlement, and the charges were then withdrawn”. If so, then could those cases have been settled without resorting to the courts?

On the other hand, does the sharp increase in prosecuted cases also tell us that more and more Singaporeans are finding it hard to make ends meet than ever before?

Regrettably, Marine Parade Town Council chairman Lim Biow Chuan seems unsympathetic to the plight of such residents, saying that it takes much “time and manpower resources” to serve three reminder letters and to get property managers to visit residents’ homes to better understand the issue.

When Mr Chiam See Tong was serving the Potong Pasir Town Council (PPTC), demand letters would be personally delivered to the affected units by the PPTC finance controller, together with two PPTC staff to find out their reasons for overdue payment. Potong Pasir residents know that PPTC handled their cases of S&CC arrears with discernment and compassion.

Interestingly, the article reports that town councils also currently employ non-legal ways to resolve the cases, such as “to let needy residents pay off the outstanding amount in instalments, or rope them in to do simple part-time work, including looking out for areas that need to be cleaned or checking for defective items in common areas such as lightbulbs that need to be changed.”

That compassionate avenue which PPTC had adopted in 2001 under Mr Chiam’s watch, saw the positive result of a significant drop in the number of default cases.

Residents need compassion in times of difficulty and town councillors, like Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan, should be more empathetic to their plight and be more eager to provide assistance in helping them work through their pain, instead of using the sledgehammer.

Not everything needs to be sacrificed at the altar of efficiency.

Singapore People’s Party