SINGAPORE - After tolerating what she claimed were sounds of dragging furniture and children running and jumping from her neighbour upstairs for about three years, her health deteriorated from being sleep-deprived and she had to stop working for six months.
The customer service officer, who wanted to be known only as Jessie, 37, told The Straits Times that she decided to throw in the towel and fork out $1,200 to rent a bedroom in a landed house elsewhere with her husband last month, as she could not take it anymore.
"Spending the money is worth it as it buys me peace. I can now sleep properly, my blood pressure has gotten better and I can focus on my job now," she said.
Jessie, who still owns her Housing Board flat in Yishun, took her case to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) in July 2020 after three failed attempts at mediation through the Community Mediation Centre (CMC).
She claimed her neighbours quietened down for about three weeks after the session, before the noise started to pick up again.
Jessie's case was among 211 applications that were filed with the CDRT in 2020. There were 237 applications in 2021, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said in response to a parliamentary question on Feb 18.
HDB has also seen an uptick in feedback relating to noise from residents' activities, including renovation noise.
Such cases went up by about 25 per cent to 3,200 cases a month in 2021, compared with 2,500 cases a month in 2020.
This is likely due to work from home arrangements, coupled with the resumption of renovation activity in June 2020, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee in response to a parliamentary question on Feb 14.
Jessie, who worked in an office, claimed the noises from her neighbour's young children would get worse after 10pm and carried on until past midnight. When it stopped, noises from pushing furniture would begin.
The distress from not being able to sleep affected her at work.
She said: "I'd go to work and sleep in the office. I got quick-tempered, I started to scold customers and cry at work - I couldn't control myself. I never behaved like that before and it scared me.
"I couldn't go on like this any longer and I left my job."
Affecting mental health
Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, said noise disturbances could result in poor quality fragmented sleep - when a person wakes up several times a night - and could affect their mental well-being.
"It increases day time sleepiness, tiredness, annoyance, mood changes, and decreases cognitive performance," she said.
Jessie was also prescribed medication - sleeping pills, antidepressants and propranolol, a medicine that treats high blood pressure, anxiety and migraines.
Dr Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist who runs his own practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said that prescribing medication like antidepressants is not uncommon to regulate anxiety while patients look for a longer-term solution.
"Mental health is tied to physical health. If your sleep is poor and stress levels are high, it affects your blood pressure, digestive processes, and can cause tension, headaches or anxiety attacks," he added.
Jessie landed a job in the same line, which she started when she moved out last month. She and her husband are also in the process of selecting a Build-To-Order flat, which they applied for last November.
She said of her Yishun flat: "I thought this would be our 'forever home', after renting for about three years before moving in. I love this unit, and I'm sad I'll likely have to let it go."
HDB advises those facing neighbour disputes to "communicate with your neighbours politely, listen to them and be willing to compromise" before seeking mediation services, according to its website.
The current quiet hours - where residents are advised to keep their volume levels low and avoid carrying out drilling and hammering works - are between 10.30pm and 7am.
A private tuition teacher who wanted to be known only as Ms Ng, 47, said she was polite when she approached her neighbour upstairs to tell them about the alleged heavy footsteps and dragging noises she heard.
"They said I was crazy and shut the door," she said, adding that the noise, which mainly occurs in the day, was disruptive.
But Ms Ng is hesitant to apply for mediation through the CMC or CDRT.
"To bring the matter up to that level, wouldn't it strain relations? It's a last resort and I doubt the chances of an effective resolution," she said. "I'll just tolerate it."
But in another case, Madam Chia, 46, said that bringing her issue to CDRT was the only avenue she had, as her neighbour upstairs refused to attend mediation and was adamant the stomping and running noises she allegedly heard did not come from their children.
"The neighbour even posted on our estate's Facebook group that they were the ones being harassed," the customer service officer added. The proceedings are still ongoing.
Dr Wang advised people enduring noisy neighbours to explain the situation calmly to them.
"If the problem is not solved, seek help from authorities to mediate - don't take matters into your own hands," he said.
In a letter to ST's Forum page published on Feb 21, an ST reader suggested a demerit system for recalcitrant noisy neighbours where HDB compiles complaints from residents about a specific unit.
HDB should issue the unit a warning letter when the complaints reach a certain number, the reader said, adding that the number of warning letters should be considered when the noise-maker applies for another flat or for services under HDB.
In the United Kingdom, noisy residents can be issued a noise abatement order. If they break the order, they can be fined up to £5,000 (S$9,000).
But criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said the demerit system is not workable as it may punish innocent residents living in the same home.
"If it's up to the number of complaints, there is no avenue for a person to clear their name," he said.
Mr Singh noted that offenders who contravenes a Magistrate's Court order to abate the nuisance can face a fine of up to $2,000 under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, but these are extreme cases.
"The remedy lies in educating people. We are a very densely populated country and we have to be a bit more sensitive," he added.
Still, Jessie hopes more can be done.
She said: "There are many people who are in the same situation I was in, and we complain and give advice to each other on social media.
"Others may not have the means to move out like I did, so I really hope the Government can do more about this."
Correction note: An earlier version of this report said there were 221 applications that were filed with the CDRT in 2020. That is incorrect. It should be 211 applications. We are sorry for the error.