Monday, October 15, 2007


IT'S a rat-infested, crowded, dingy shophouse that may well be a fire hazard too.
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The shophouse in Little India is not supposed to be used as a boarding house.

But about 60 migrant workers are squeezed into this hell-hole - because they can't afford anything better.

Many earn about $1,000 a month and they pay rent of about $200 for a thin, dirty mattress on a bunk bed.

They have no cupboards so they dump their belongings on the same mattress.

That's not all. Tenants complained they often get bitten by bed bugs and rats crawl all over them.

The landlord makes a whopping $8,000 in rent a month for the shophouse. A housing agent told The New Paper on Sunday that a similar-sized property in Little India would bring $6,000 to $7,000 if rented out for commercial use.

What did the landlord do with his tenant's complaints? He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed them as petty.

But the shophouse is not meant to be used as a boarding house. He claimed he didn't know.

The New Paper on Sunday found out about the shophouse from a hotline call. The workers, mostly from China and Malaysia, were packed into two floors of the shophouse.

Each floor has an area of about 111sqm, slightly more than a four-room HDB flat.

But the landlord carved seven rooms on the second storey. This houses some 30people, two-thirds of themwomen.
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The third storey has eight rooms occupied by a similar number, all men. They declined to talk when we approached them.

Exact numbers were not available. These tenants come and go, said the landlord who wanted to be known as only Mr Mok.


As many as eight people have to cram into some of the rooms, each no bigger than an HDB bedroom.

And each of these workers pay $150 to $170 a month to the Singaporean landlord.

He also keeps a month's rent as deposit from each of them, and insists they have to stay for the contracted period. He said he will return the deposit once the contract is over.

But the tenants are saying that with the total of about $8,000 they pay, they could have rented four four-room flats.

Instead, they have to share bunk beds packed into small rooms.

And it is on the same beds that they keep all their belongings, including food, and hang their wet laundry todry.
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Pest problem: Rats like this one have beeneating the residents' food.

Mr Mok said some of the tenants had actually forfeited their deposits to stay elsewhere.

And he's not even allowed to use the place as a boarding house.

A check with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) showed that the three-storey building is zoned for commercial use.

A URA spokesman told The New Paper on Sunday that it is located in an area where boarding houses are generally not supported.

'URA will investigate whether the use of the premises has infringed planning controls and if there is any infringement, appropriate enforcement action will be taken against the owner or tenant of the premises for the unauthorised boarding house,' she added.

The 58-year-old landlord admitted that he had not got permission from the URA to run the boarding house.

Mr Mok, who also runs a renovation business, said in Mandarin: 'I took over the place only three months ago. I'm not sure of the rules and regulations for the use of the shophouse.

'I didn't foresee so many problems in running a boarding house.'


The New Paper on Sunday visited the building two weeks ago and spoke to some of the tenants. They all requested that we not use their full names.

'Our biggest problem is pests,' said one tenant, Miss Ren. 'We have to dry our clothes inside our rooms as there isn't a proper laundry area.

'There are no cupboards in the rooms so we have to put all our belongings on our beds.'

The 25-year-old from Jilin province had paid an agent back home the equivalent of $8,000 to help her find a job as a beautician, along with accommodation here.

Miss Ren, who earns $950 a month as a beautician, said: 'One day, I came home after work and saw two rats on my bed. Another time, I left an apple on my bed and it was eaten by rats. Even my packets of instant noodles and rice are not spared.

'My room-mates have seen a rat running over me when I was sleeping. The thought of it gives me goosebumps.'

The New Paper on Sunday spotted rats and cockroaches inside some of the rooms.

The tenants said they have also been bitten by bed bugs.

Some of them showed us what looked like bug bites on their legs.

Mr Mok dismissed their complaints.

He said: 'I've sprayed insecticides to kill the bed bugs and used rat poison to kill the rats. But if these girls continue to bring food into their rooms and dirty the place, no matter how much I do, there will still be rats and bed bugs.

'I have a fridge on the third floor, but these girls choose to keep their food inside their rooms as they are afraid that other tenants will eat it without permission.

'Many of them come from rural parts of China and they have their own living habits. They spit anywhere in the house and throw things everywhere.'


Said one tenant, Miss Wang: 'The fridge on the third floor is too small for more than 50 tenants to use. Also it's all men staying on the third floor, it's not so convenient for us to go up there.'

Many of them arrived in Singapore for the first time recently, in search of a better life.

Some of them are fresh college and university graduates, in the early to mid 20s.

They had borrowed money from parents and relatives to pay agents back home to help them get a job and a place to stay here.

They are here as cashiers, waitresses, beauticians and factory workers, earning $800 to $1,000 amonth.

Miss Ren said: 'I've heard so much about Singapore being a clean, garden city. When I arrived at the airport, I was impressed. But once I stepped into my room, I was shocked.

'There is only one toilet and bathroom on each floor and more than 20 of us have to queue to use it every morning.

'There isn't a kitchen or pantry area for us to cook, so we have to cook while squatting along the corridor.'


There are no windows in their rooms and though there is air-conditioning in every room, it breaks down often, the women claimed.

Miss Chow, 22, said: 'When I arrived two months ago, I cried every night. I felt like I'm living in the dirtiest corner of Singapore, yet I can't get out of this place.

'We are strangers here, we have no idea how to find another place for rent and we have no more money to pay agents to help us find a new place.'

They said they have asked Mr Mok to return their one-month deposit as they find the place unsuitable for living and want to move out.

But Mr Mok refused and claimed they are legally bound by their contracts of three to six months.

When the tenants asked to see their contracts, Mr Mok refused.

He said: 'I will give them a copy of the contract if they give me a copy of their work permit.

'I need to be sure that they are legally employed. But they think I will try to send them back to China if they hand me a copy of their work permit.'

Mr Mok added: 'It is stated clearly in the contract that they are not allowed to cook inside the boarding house and they are to keep the place clean. But none of them seems to be following the rules.

'When they return after work, they all hide inside their rooms to cook with electric stoves. Inevitably the power trips.'

Mr Mok is aware that cooking inside the rooms is a fire hazard.

He said: 'They are unhappy with my stringent rules and do things to spite me, like leaving the tap running or littering the staircases and corridors. I have to clean up the place twice a day.'

The women are also unhappy that the landlord barges into their rooms in the middle of the night without knocking.

But Mr Mok said: 'Their doors are not closed, so is there a need to knock?

'It's only the female tenants who are complaining. The men have no complaints.'

Running the boarding house is part of Mr Mok's retirement plan.

'I'm getting older each day and it's physically draining for me to be doing renovation and electrical work,' he said.

'I had thought that it'll be easier to run a boarding house - just sit back and collect rent.'

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