Right after settling a social media boo-boo created by an Aussie employee, 9.co’s CEO Darius Cheung was quick to divert the media’s attention to another sensitive topic – the alleged discrimination of Singapore landlords on Indians and PRC tenants.
Telling his story in a blog post, Darius shared how they had been rejected by 20 percent of the landlords just because his wife is an Indian. At the end, they had to pay 15 percent more to rent a place.
After the unpleasant personal experience, Darius launched a ‘Say No to Racial Discrimination’ campaign. From now on, listings with ‘All Races Welcome’ rather than ‘No Indian No PRC’ will be prominently featured on the property portal.
Can landlords choose their tenants?
Frankly, I am surprised by the initiative of 99.co.
No one can deny the importance of racial equality. But is the local rental market a right platform to fight for the cause? Or has 99.co just opened a can of worms?
We are not discriminating against any race here. This is locals versus foreigners (or foreigners from certain countries). In Singapore, most landlords are locals and majority of tenants are foreigners. With our HDB home ownership scheme, we have far more owners and landlords than tenants.
Article 12 (2) of Singapore’s Constitution states that ‘no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth’.
Unfortunately, this only applies to ‘citizens of Singapore’, not non-citizens residing in Singapore.
Racial harmony is a core value in multi-cultural Singapore. But political propaganda and personal preferences are two different things.
In fact, nationality is only one out of many leasing criteria. Singapore landlords also have concerns over pets, smoking, profession, family size, sexual orientation, relationship of a couple staying together, etc.
The question is: When I am investing my money in a rental property, and I am paying the housing loan, management fee and property tax, do I have the right to pick my tenant?
If my exclusion list is discriminatory, what about those resorts that are not accepting tour groups from China, or only accepting those from China’s tier 1 cities? Aren’t these also discrimination?
What about the taxi driver who refuses to drive me home, or that store owner who doesn’t want my business?
Do you know what they call Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, etc. in Hong Kong? They just give them one name: South Asians.
Due to the legacy of British colonial rule, Hong Kong has 61,400 South Asians. Despite being the third generation and speaking fluent Cantonese, they still face a lot of discriminations in education, employment and housing.
It is almost impossible to find any local Chinese landlord who is willing to rent to a South Asian. A recent documentary interviewed landlords who claim that the strong smell of curry South Asians prepare is a source of neighbor complaints. It is also impossible to get rid of that smell after they move out.
Sounds familiar? Remember the curry war between two neighbors and the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign in 2011? We even have a story on BBC News.
I like to cook different types of Thai curry too, especially panang curry, massaman curry, green curry and red curry. Once I even bought the authentic small garlics, green and red chillies from a Bangkok wet market to prepare the real thing. And I like to open the kitchen doors to let the smell notify my two little ones who can’t wait to taste their favorite dish.
Can you imagine the strong smell coming from my house? My neighbors can enjoy my curry smell for free and no one ever complain.
Is strong smell a personal preference, or just an excuse out of discrimination?
What are landlords and tenants looking for?
Being a tenant for 7 years and a multiple-property landlord since 2002, I can empathize and understand the concerns of both parties.
It is not the just the landlords who are picking the tenants. The tenants are also choosing the landlords.
As a tenant, I am looking for a nice and reasonable landlord.
Reasonable means my landlord does not come over to spot-check all the time and let me stay in peace. Reasonable means my landlord does not give me old furniture or appliances that he wants to dispose them. Reasonable means my landlord understands the kitchen is not for display only but can be used for cooking.
As a landlord, I am looking for a good tenant.
Good implies my tenant always pays his rent in time and in advance. Good implies my tenant doesn’t give me any trouble during his stay in my property. Good implies my tenant will return the unit in its original condition at the end of the contract.
When I first started as a landlord, I didn’t mind any race and nationality. My preferences are gradually formed after years’ of experiences, both good and bad ones.
Now I know exactly which nationalities and what profiles of tenants will give me peace of mind, and vice versa. And I can tell you that the background of the tenant is more important than the nationality.
Leasing a property is based on mutual agreement. We can’t avoid the fact that landlords have stereotypes of different nationalities, their living habits and ways to upkeep their house. We can educate the public to understand and accept foreigners. But landlords also reserve the right to sign contracts with tenants that they are comfortable dealing with.
Is it nationalities or personalities?
You want to know the nationalities of my ex-tenants? I have had Americans, British, Danish, Japanese, Koreans, Canadian Chinese, Hong Kong, Indians, Singaporeans, you name it.
Which is the worst tenant I ever had? Sadly, it is a local Singaporean.
I had two properties that were very popular with Japanese and Koreans who, in my opinion, are good tenants and great housekeepers. I always marvel at how they master the art of tidying and organizing the house.
But there are exceptions.
Once I was working nearby and decided to DIY for a flat viewing. My tenant was a single Japanese guy on company lease. He was out of town and asked me to go any time. There was a single guy coming for viewing that evening.
I opened the door and was choked by the cigarette smell. I immediately knew that I need chemical wash of all the air-conditioners and whole house cleaning to get rid of the smell as soon as the contract ended.
There were household items lying all over the floor. We had to hop around the mess to avoid stepping on anything.
When I finally reached the living room, I was shocked to see a full collection of porn videotapes, VCDs, DVDs and Blurays with international cast – all proudly and orderly displayed on the TV console and the sofa.
I suddenly realized why my property agent told me that the tenant was very happy I could find him a VCR player “to watch cricket match videotapes”.
Despite that incident, I don’t have rental discriminations against single Japanese tenants because I know that this is an exceptional case. But from then on, I let my property agent handle all the flat viewings and handovers for me.
Crave for more tenant stories? Share yours with me and tell me what you think about rental discrimination in Singapore.
The writer shares his experience as a property investor in Singapore at PropertySoul.com. He has attracted a regular group of followers, with blog posts frequently reposted at Yahoo News, TheFinance.sg, Singapore Investment Bloggers, Propertyguru.com.sg, The Singapore Daily, Propwise.sg, Singapore Business Review, Temasek Review and other wealth blogs.