Sunday, December 14, 2008


The Electric New Paper :

He refuses to pay, faces cut-off of water supply

BEING home again after a two-month trip to Malaysia was not so sweet for Mr Francis Tan.

By Amanda Yong and Lediati Tan

13 December 2008

BEING home again after a two-month trip to Malaysia was not so sweet for Mr Francis Tan.

First, he could not get into his one-room flat in Toa Payoh because the lock had been changed.

Then, he learnt that it was mosquito-busters who had done it, as authorised under the law.

They had broken in to check for mosquito breeding, after failing several time to gain entry.

Mr Tan went to the National Environment Agency (NEA) to collect the key to get in.

That was when he found his toilet cistern damaged. Water was gushing out. And the toilet was in a mess.

But worse was to follow a month later - the 71-year-old retiree ended up with a $1,200 water bill.

So, what led to the escape of water over an extended period?

Mr Tan claimed that all was in order when he left for his holiday at the end of May. He thinks it was the intrusion by NEA officers that could have triggered the leak. They were the only ones who were in his flat when he was away, he claimed.

When contacted by The New Paper, NEA said its inspection team was not negligent. Under the Control of Vectors and Pesticides Act, authorised officers may enter any premises to survey, inspect, search or execute any works stated by the Act.

NEA entered flat

Mr Tan, a divorcee who has been living alone in the flat for the past two years, does not dispute NEA's right to break into his flat. The NEA said it had tried informing Mr Tan of its visit.

Mr Tan showed The New Paper an NEA notice, dated 20 Jun, which arrived about amonth after he had left to visit friends in Malaysia. The notice said its officers had made a 'few visits' to Mr Tan's flat but no one was home. It asked for Mr Tan to be at home from 10am to noon the next day for the inspection.

When Mr Tan returned on 30 Jul, he found a notice on the door that said NEA officers had entered his flat on 26 Jun to check for mosquito breeding following cases of dengue fever in the neighbourhood.

The officers did not find any signs of mosquito breeding.

After they entered the flat, they replaced the padlock for the metal gate. The notice asked Mr Tan to collect the key from the NEA Central Regional Office in Bukit Merah.

After collecting the key, Mr Tan returned to find another notice outside his flat, this time from the national water agency PUB. It said a PUB officer was at his home earlier to check his water meter and found 'high water consumption'.

The notice read: 'We found that the dial of the water meter serving your premises was moving even though no one was in. As this could be due to a leak in your plumbing, you are advised to check for leakage.'

As a precaution, the PUB had turned off his water mains.

When Mr Tan turned the mains on, he found water leaking from the cistern in his bathroom.

He recalled: 'When I lifted the cover of the cistern to check, one of the pipes inside was bent sideways. The water was flowing out like a tap. I ran out to turn the mains off.'

He said the floor around the kitchen was also dirty and messy. He contacted NEA the next day.

Over the next few days, he had to manually flush the toilet by pouring water into the toilet bowl.

On 2 Aug, a plumber from the Housing Board (HDB) came to fix the cistern. But it did not end there.

In September, Mr Tan received his utilities bill for August from SP Services. The water bill, which he showed us, was for more than $1,200 - about $900 for water and more than $300 for water conservation tax.

'I was shocked. I had expected the water bill to come up to no more than $200 (even with the leakage),' Mr Tan said. The bar graph for past consumption that was printed on the bill also showed a sharp spike upwards for water consumption in August.

He said he usually pays about $5 a month for water. He showed us copies of his previous utilities bills as proof. Could he have left a tap running when he left for his holiday?

He said: 'I'm very cautious when it comes to using water and electricity.'

Was the damage man-made? The New Paper tried contacting the plumber, but he could not be reached.

Mr Tan has so far refused to pay the $1,200 bill. He said he did not have the means to pay even if he wanted to.

'Would I be living in a one-room flat if I could pay?'

He now faces the prospect of having his utilities supply cut off. In mid-October, he received a reminder notice from SP Services. Later that month, another notice informed Mr Tan that his utilities supply may be cut off if he does not pay by 6 Nov. So far, the supply has not been stopped.

Mr Tan said he has called and written to NEA several times. He showed us three replies from NEA, denying responsibility. NEA's latest reply to him, dated 15 Oct, said that its officers had entered Mr Tan's house 'in the presence of two police officers and two Resident's Committee members'. It said that NEA is 'unable to accept that the water leakage and (Mr Tan's) high utilities bill were a result of our entry into (his) flat'.

Mr Tan is sticking to his guns and refusing to pay the bill.

'I will let (my utilities supply) be cut off (if it has to be).'

NEA inspected cistern, but says no damage done

ITS inspection officers were not to blame for Mr Tan's high water bill, an NEA spokesman told The New Paper. 'Our investigations show that there is nothing to suggest any negligence or fault on the part of NEA's inspection team,' the spokesman said.

'The leak could have been a latent or pre-existing condition and it may have gone unnoticed by our team or occurred later due to fair wear and tear.'

NEA officers had carried out checks for mosquito breeding on flats at Blocks 163, 168, 170 and 174, Lorong1 Toa Payoh from 3 Jun onwards due to a dengue fever outbreak in the area (there were 45 cases from 3 Jun to 22 Jul).

The spokesman said Mr Tan's flat at Block 170 was among 12 flats the officers could not inspect despite notices being left for the owners. Notices were left outside Mr Tan's flat on 20 and 22 Jun.

Said the spokesman: 'As there was still no response from Mr Tan and in light of the increasing number of dengue fever cases in the area, we were compelled to invoke Section 36 of the Control of Vectors and Pesticides Act to (enter) Mr Tan's flat.' They did it 'with the assistance of a locksmith and in the presence of police officers and grassroots leaders'. 'We had lifted the cover of the toilet cistern to check for mosquito breeding and then added granular insecticide into the cistern,' the spokesman said.

The officers had not damaged any property inside Mr Tan's flat.

But the NEA spokesman said that 'in light of the circumstances and on compassionate ground', NEA is considering helping Mr Tan to settle his water bill, and will be in touch with him.


END-MAY: Mr Tan leaves for Malaysia.

20-21 JUN: NEA officers try to check on mosquito breeding at Mr Tan's flat, leave notices to say they will return.

26 JUN: NEA officers enter flat. They leave notice to inform Mr Tan of their entry. They replace padlock on his gate.

30 JUL: Mr Tan returns from M'sia, gets key from NEA office. PUB officer leaves notice at flat about high water consumption. Mr Tan goes home, sees notice, finds water leaking from cistern.

31 JUL: Mr Tan reports leaking cistern to HDB.

2 AUG: Plumber from HDB fixes cistern.

EARLY SEPT: Mr Tan gets August utilities bill of more than $1,200.

31 JUL-24 NOV: Mr Tan calls and writes to NEA six times. NEA replies, denies responsiblity for water leakage and high bill.


A normal cistern or toilet tank has two main mechanisms to ensure it does not overflow: The overflow pipe, and the float ball and valve.


Directs water from tank into the toilet bowl when there is too much water in the tank


Rises as water level in tank rises. Closes the fill valve when the tank reaches its maximum water level limit


Connected to flush lever. Releases water into toilet bowl when lever is pushed He said one of the pipes inside his cistern was bent sideways.

What can go wrong

Old valves may fail to close tightly, which may result in continued water flow into tank

Dented or damaged overflow pipe may fail to direct overflow water into toilet bowl

Punctured or damaged float ball may keep valve from closing properly

Mr Tan's cistern

He said one of the pipes inside his cistern was bent sideways.

[Comment: I think circumstantial evidence would indicate that NEA is most likely to have damaged or dislodged the overflow pipe leading to continuous waterflow. In normal usage, no one would open the cistern. NEA not only opened the cistern, they also added granular insecticide. In the course of either, it is very probably that the overflow pipe could be dislodged. Denying this probability is rather silly and makes NEA seem unreasonable. ]

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