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Airbnb must adapt to laws of the land

I am not surprised that progressive cities like New York, San Francisco and Berlin are seeking to tame the regressive beast of short-term rental companies like Airbnb ("Airbnb in bitter disputes with New York and San Francisco"; July 3).

In today's commercialisation of the ancient home-sharing concept via cyberspace, platforms such as Airbnb seek a commission from every trade as middlemen while disclaiming responsibility for any illegal activity by their clients on either side of the deal.

Is such corporate social irresponsibility something we want to encourage in a town that takes great pride in its social decorum, ethics and the rule of law?

There is nothing innovative about Airbnb's business model. Online commerce pioneers like Amazon and eBay have been at it for two decades, fuelled by smart customer relationship management tools for the dynamic measurement, personalisation and fulfilment of consumer needs.

Travel websites like Expedia market assets they do not own and receive a cut from every sale.

Similar agents like Airbnb would be just as agreeable if they do not just tout the "benefits" of their business while sweeping all costs and liabilities under their carpet.

Disrupting the daily lives of residents is a very different ball game from disrupting the business of competitors.

Being progressive is not simply about being trendy, but also about keeping the precious heritage of indigenous socio-cultural equity and identity alive amid the increasing uniformity of globalisation.

It is about being considerate to one's neighbours in a community of shared spaces, in sharp contrast to a sense of self-entitlement at all costs, including at the expense of others.

The legal encapsulation of such basic values need not be dated just because they happen to be around far longer than juvenile upstarts.

The privacy and sanctity of one's home in one of the most densely populated countries in the world are non-tradeable assets.

Start-ups like Airbnb which seek to ride roughshod over these serious concerns with a cookie-cutter approach will risk even greater pushback if they do not get their act together.

No two markets are wholly alike; value, cultural and lifestyle differences can still be discerned from place to place even in this more globalised world.

The short-term rental of apartments can have a place under our more inclusive Singaporean sun as a niche product, but only if all market players, including the regulator, commit to respecting and protecting the core values and interests underpinning Singapore's residential property market, especially those of residents, according to clearly defined laws governing eligible properties for such commercial activity.

Until then, I urge the authorities to work with agents like Airbnb to crack down on landlords or tenants who use such channels to flout Singapore's housing rules.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Airbnb must adapt to laws of the land'. Print Edition | Subscribe