‘Is it because my wife is Indian?’

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Darius Cheung and his wife Roshni. Photo credit: bambooshoots.com.sg

A Singaporean investor and entrepreneur has gone public with his experiences of a culture of racial discrimination in the property market here.

Darius Cheung, CEO of local property portal 99.co, detailed his experiences in a heartfelt post on the 99.co blog. Cheung said that he and his Indian wife Roshni experienced rejection many times in their attempts to rent a property for the family.

Last year, the couple sought to rent a new home nearer to Roshni’s office, in preparation for the arrival of their then-unborn daughter.

Cheung claimed that in their enquiries for more than 30 properties, the couple were rejected upfront simply because of his wife’s name. While texting an agent to negotiate the price after a viewing, Cheung was even told, “Sorry your wife is Indian, landlord won’t rent to you. Next time please indicate earlier, so we both don’t waste time”.

On another occasion, after being informed by an agent that “Profile doesn’t match”, Cheung asked, “Is it because my wife is Indian?”

The response, “Yes, thanks for your understanding”.

In the end, Cheung said, the couple paid 15 per cent above the market rate for a suitable home that welcomed them. Cheung said his wife was so affected by the saga that she even considered dropping her surname from their daughter’s IC because “it might just be easier for her in the future”.

But Cheung added that the problem extends beyond discrimination against those of Indian origin. In a survey of 99.co users, it was discovered that the two groups of people who most often receive discriminatory responses from landlords and agents are Indians and Chinese nationals.

Enquiries about rental properties often come with a series of profiling questions such as “What race are you?” and “Where are you from?”.

99.co was recently in the news when it dismissed an Australian employee for making disparaging remarks about Singapore. The employee Sonny Truyen had been upset because the popular game Pokemon Go was not available in Singapore yet.

Citing high rental vacancy rates - 7.5 per cent for private properties as of Q1 2016 - Cheung asked, “Is it really economically wise to discriminate against over 50 percent of rental demand?”

The entrepreneur concluded by introducing a new feature on 99.co – “All-races-welcome” listings. These listings will then be prominently featured on the 99.co homepage to prospective renters.

In a comment on Cheung’s post, user Look Deeper, who claims to work in the real estate industry, offered a possible explanation for the discriminatory behaviour of landlords. He gave the example of two landlords who refused to rent to Indians or Chinese nationals based on unpleasant experiences with previous tenants of those nationalities.

But he condeded, “I personally support this initiative. But the root cause of this issue run way deep and would not be change with a petition or pledge over a short period of time.”