Ex-convict: Why am I being punished again?

SINGAPORE - Released from Changi prison after serving nearly three years for setting a man ablaze, he headed straight to his home on February 16 - and found himself homeless.

Mr Kuu Siau Lam's one-room rental flat in Toa Payoh was occupied by another family. The 68-year-old was furious.

The flat had been recovered and re-allocated by HDB when he was serving his sentence.

All his furniture, electrical appliances and belongings were no longer there. His passport, birth certificate and other important documents were also gone.

Around $6,000 worth of items had been left in the flat before he went to jail, he claimed.

Among the missing items: Two refrigerators, a 32-inch LCD TV, an electric bicycle, antique furniture and the power tools he used when he worked as a carpenter before his conviction.

The HDB had, in repossessing the flat, removed and disposed of the items.

In 2011, he had set his colleague on fire with thinner and a lighter after a spat in their workshop. His co-worker, Mr Kee Yau Chong, suffered burns to more than 28 per cent of his body, including his face, body and arms. Mr Kuu was sentenced to four years' jail.

Six months into his jail term, Mr Kuu, with the help of prison officers, wrote a letter to HDB, saying he wanted to keep his flat and belongings.

But HDB, in a letter, rejected his request, said Mr Kuu.

There was no further correspondence between HDB and himself after that.

Said Mr Kuu in Mandarin: "I've already served my sentence for my crime. I've done my time. So why am I being punished again?"

On the night of his release on February 16, Mr Kuu slept on a deck chair outside a public toilet in Toa Payoh, which was used by cleaning attendants in the day.

With no job and no home to return to, he told The New Paper: "I'm so old already and they took away my home and my belongings. There is no hope left."

His carpenter job paid him about $800 a month. Most of his savings are "gone already", said Mr Kuu.

He now lives on around $300 given to him monthly by the Social Services Office at Toa Payoh. He has no family or relatives, only a neighbourhood friend.

Mr Kuu approached his friend, freelance contractor Paul Thanabal, 60, who lives nearby in another rental flat, and told him about his situation.

Together, they went to HDB to try and recover his belongings on March 14. But all they got back were his documents, passport and a box of old photographs.

Mr Kuu showed The New Paper team his only possessions, which he carries around in a small red tote bag.

He said: "I had a home and I had my things. Now, these are all I have left."

Mr Kuu was told that his furniture, electronics and bicycle could not be returned as they "were thrown away already", said Mr Thanabal.

RE-ALLOCATED

When contacted, an HDB spokesman confirmed that they had repossessed his rental flat and "re-allocated it to a needy household" in March 2012, about 10 months after his arrest.

The spokesman said that HDB would first contact the next-of-kin to claim the tenant's belongings.

If none is found after six months, HDB would proceed to recover the rental flat in the presence of a third party.

A list of the belongings in the flat would be drawn up and items such as NRIC, passports and other valuables would be handed over to the police.

"Items of sentimental value will be kept for six months before they are disposed of," said the HDB spokesman. "We are unable to store other household items as the storage will incur public funds."

But HDB did not say what they had done with Mr Kuu's electrical appliances and furniture.

Two Members of Parliament TNP spoke to said HDB should have made special arrangements with Mr Kuu before disposing of his possessions.

MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng said: "There should have been a better way to handle this case.

"With voluntary welfare organisations, family service centres or grassroots members, collectively speaking, something can be arranged even if the items are really bulky."

His former MP, Mr Hri Kumar Nair of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, wrote a letter to HDB to help him with the flat issue.

MP for Jurong GRC Ang Wei Neng said HDB should have communicated more with Mr Kuu regarding his belongings before deciding to discard them.

Said Mr Ang: "HDB should have asked if there (is a need to) dispose of his belongings, and they could have asked him what he intended to do with his belongings while he was in prison."

1,800 households waiting for rental flats: HDB

When Mr Kuu Siau Lam was in prison, he wrote a letter to HDB asking them to allow him to keep the rental flat he was living in, adding that he would continue to pay the $26 monthly rental.

But after HDB rejected him in their reply, he felt there was nothing he could do from behind bars.

He did not speak to anyone in prison about his situation.

An HDB spokesman said it was their policy to take back rental flats which have been left vacant for more than six months as the demand for such flats is high.

"As Mr Kuu would not be occupying the rental flat for a prolonged period of time and there was no other occupier in the flat, we had recovered the vacant rental flat and allocated it to a needy family."

The spokesman added that there are 1,800 needy households waiting in line for a rental flat, with an average waiting time of about seven months.

"We need to maximise the use of these heavily subsidised rental flats to help as many as possible, within our limited resources," said the spokesman.

HELP ON RELEASE

Upon his release, Mr Kuu and his friend, Mr Thanabal, approached his former MP, Mr Hri Kumar Nair, and the Social Service Office at Toa Payoh for help.

Both helped to write letters to HDB on his behalf.

A Ministry of Social and Family Development spokesman said the Social Service Office offered him financial and medical fee assistance. The Social Service Office Division is under the ministry.

It also offered him temporary shelter services, which Mr Kuu rejected.

Said Mr Kuu: "I'm not a beggar. I have a home, but it was taken away from me unfairly. All I want is for them to return me my home."

He intends to apply for another rental flat.

Meanwhile, he has little choice but to sleep in public areas.

He sometimes stays in Mr Thanabal's one-room rental flat, especially when it rains.

Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development and Environment, said it was understandable that HDB had to take back the flat.

But he felt that they should make concessions for Mr Kuu if he were to re-apply for another flat after serving his prison term.

Mr Seah said: "There is justification here to expedite the application (for Mr Kuu) and give him another flat, since he already qualified for one before."

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg


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