SINGAPORE - For close to 15 years, an architect and his wife unlawfully occupied 144.2 sq m of state land next to their three-storey house in Jalan Tari Zapin in Seletar, which was built in 2005 but had been left vacant since.
The main gate, entrance driveway, two boundary walls and a fence of the house effectively annexed the parcel of state land - which was larger than a five-room Housing Board flat - as part of the couple's property. Part of the swimming pool also jutted out onto the enclosed land.
The encroachments were discovered in 2013 when national water agency PUB implemented a drainage improvement project to alleviate flooding in the area.
Following numerous requests and demands by the authorities, the offending structures were finally removed in December 2019.
Tan Teck Siong and his wife Cheah Mee Poh - the first people to be prosecuted for trespassing on state land under the State Lands Encroachments Act - have been respectively fined $4,000 and $3,000 for their offences.
The offence carries a maximum fine of $5,000 or a jail term of up to six months, or both.
Tan was fined another $5,000 under the Building Control Act for making false declarations in December 2005 that the building works did not deviate from approved plans.
According to a written judgment published this week, Tan, 62, and Cheah, 60, have been the registered owners of a plot of land in Jalan Tari Zapin, a 999-year leasehold with an area of 546.6 sq m, since 2001.
They had planned to build a house on the land as a gift for Tan's parents.
Between 2002 and 2004, the couple obtained the requisite approvals from the authorities to build the house, and Tan was named as the Qualified Person for the project, who is responsible for ensuring that works at the house are carried out in line with building regulations.
The house was left vacant, as Tan's father died soon after construction was completed in 2005 and the property was too big for his mother to live alone.
In 2013, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), while inspecting the site for the PUB project, discovered the encroachments.
The authorities wrote to the couple asking for the encroachments to be removed.
The couple claimed that they could not reposition the gate, as it would block the only vehicular access to the property. They were also reluctant to hack the swimming pool wall.
Meetings were held and correspondence exchanged but none of the proposed solutions resolved the impasse.
In the meantime, the PUB started its work but did not upgrade 95m of the drain bordering the property. It also incurred about $24,000 to come up with temporary flooding measures.
The matter went cold for two years until June 2019, when the SLA issued a demand to the owners to remove the encroachments. The owners eventually agreed to comply.
In December 2019, the couple were issued summonses for trespassing on state land.
They were sentenced last month after pleading guilty to the charges.
In sentencing them for the trespass, District Judge Clement Tan found the level of harm caused and the couple's level of culpability to be moderate.
The judge noted that no damage was caused to state land, although the PUB was prevented from carrying out its project expediently.
He noted that the couple enjoyed exclusive access to the encroached land for close to 15 years, even though they did not live there.
Defence counsel Mahesh Rai argued that some of the structures were already in existence when the couple took over the property and the couple merely refurbished or replaced them.
Judge Tan accepted that an old gate was already in place when the couple took over the property, but said this did not legitimise the encroachment.
"What is clear and undisputed is that Tan and Cheah had erected a new entrance gate to the property which effectively cut off any public access, thereby 'privatising' the driveway which is actually part of state land," he said.
However, the judge said a jail term was not warranted, as there was no damage to the land and there were no reports of flooding during this time. He found that Cheah, as a layman, was less culpable than her husband. Prosecutors had sought a $5,000 fine each for the couple.
As for the false declaration, the judge characterised Tan's conduct as "exploitative", rather than malicious or nefarious, as the architect believed that the odds of being found out were low.
"In fact, Tan's gamble would have paid off had PUB not embarked on its drainage upgrading project," said the judge.