How to recognise domineering management in strata properties

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Contributed by property valuer Mary Lau

The classic novel 1984 by George Orwell warned about the dangers of totalitarian and repressive governance – and it is still relevant in the 21st century

Doublethink, newspeak, and telescreens: these are just some of the techniques of control used by "Big Brother" – the leader of a totalitarian party in the dystopian world depicted in 1984.

The dark world portrayed in 1984 weighed heavily on my mind as a 16-year-old – we not only had to read the book in high school, but review and discuss its themes as well, and it was frightening.

Two decades later, the struggles of the protagonist, Winston Smith, would resurface in my mind when we had to put up a fight against a mighty developer in a group lawsuit (read Seeking justice: A group lawsuit against an unscrupulous developer).

That ominous feeling returned a decade after, when living in strata title properties had become a way of life, and authoritarian management teams were no longer a surprise.

In some stratified properties, life usually has some semblance of order and peace – but beneath the shiny exterior, there is sometimes conflict. There are certain management practices that might remind us of the Party oppressively running the lives of citizens living in the world of 1984.

Photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash.

Photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some management teams that are good examples – we need such role models to speak out against unsavoury practices.

Here is an account of actual events that happened in some less desirable situations, and they serve to remind us to step back and take a closer look at the reality – getting accustomed to these situations could lead to apathy and new lows becoming the norm.

Covert Surveillance

In Property 51, a stratified development, discontent with the management was brewing among residents and chat groups were buzzing with plans of revolt.

But these private conversations were being passed to the Management Committee (MC), which were then redirected to the Headquarters of the property management company (HQ).

Nothing discussed in these chat groups was private anymore, especially when the residents represented a threat to the MC. The HQ kept tabs on the discontented residents – just as Big brother watched its citizens through telescreens in their homes.

Restricting Speech

The standard operating procedures at a particular management company prohibits employees from receiving gratuities or gifts, even small festive tokens are prohibited – and staff are discouraged from communicating freely or forming friendships with residents.

These rules of conduct are meant to create an invisible barrier between the management staff and residents. Those who break the rules could be transferred, sidelined, or even terminated.

When a manager gets transferred, his superiors, as the “Thought Police” of 1984 had done, would tell him that it is to his advantage and he is instructed to say the same when asked. His thoughts are not his own anymore. He has to be prepared for dire repercussions if he feels compelled to tell the truth.

In order to protect the managers, residents have to keep their conversations and relationships discreet. Sharing the wrong piece of news could lead to managers being accused of leaking information – a clear breach of the rules of conduct.

Unfortunately, remaining silent has become the new way to survive in a climate of restricted speech at this property. Life in a democracy is not supposed to be like this. We should all be able to communicate freely without fear.

Beyond merely restricting speech, some bodies of authority may take things a step further by attempting to dictate thoughts. A real-life example of this was when a senior member of a management committee told a resident that he must trust them because they were duly elected by other residents at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and that it was not civil to question their authority.

Harbouring an expectation of unconditional trust is unrealistic – there should not be such expectations to begin with.

Strategic Maneuvering

The Management takes instructions from the MC but there are times when the lines blur. Who is making the decisions? Sometimes, too much authority is given to them by the MC.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.

Do they not know that their costs are paid from the maintenance funds and borne by all owners? They are answerable to everyone, yet they can choose to ignore concerns of residents and owners.

In Property 46, their costs as a percentage of current maintenance charges are high, comprising management fees, staff costs, and administrative expenses – but there are owners who are not aware of this fact.

Lingering questions on the number of staff and the high costs incurred for their salaries are worrying. The high management fee is another nagging concern. But the MC does not seem bothered.

Why does the MC not get quotations from other management companies?

This Committee is strong and will do what it takes to stay in power, rooting out anyone not having the same ideas. Members are chosen in advance. Not all are welcomed to share the seats of authority.

Although the Strata Management Act allows up to 14 members, the MC in Property 49 put a motion to vote at an AGM to reduce the number of members in order to benefit their dominant groups.

In another development, the management formed “Yes teams”, filling all 14 seats with handpicked members and preventing the participation of outsiders.

Since the Act allows them to serve for three consecutive terms, after which they need to vacate for only one term, the management arranges the duty roster (read: Standard procedures for management bodies of stratified properties). The domination will continue – the MC has a group of members who will take turns to be in office.

During AGMs, there were members from this dominant group who went on the defensive and stopped others from asking questions that were not to their liking. There now seems to be a quota on how much one can ask or seek clarification.

A member of the management staff, was likely coached, called an owner to attend the AGM – and falsehoods were relayed with the intention of getting support for the MC. How many were contacted? No one can be certain with the “Ministry of Truth” involved.

There are other concerns such as the legitimacy of proxy forms submitted by unknown parties, the verbal relaying of incorrect information on the eligibility to vote in contradiction to written rules, and the cold calling of owners by certain group members to canvass for votes – the list goes on.

The deployment of all machinery to stay in power, with the aim being to discourage other members and to wear them out, has a similar tone to the ending of 1984. Winston was so broken by the treatment unleashed on him by the Party that in the end, he caved in and succumbed to his final realisation – that "he loved Big Brother".


About the contributor

Mary_Lau_picture

Mary Lau graduated from the University of Reading, England, with a BSc Land Management (Valuation Specialisation) in 1991. In 2002, she was appointed High Court Assessor in Sarawak for compulsory acquisition and compensation cases and sat on the bench with the judge. She began her training with CH Williams and later held senior positions in valuation firms such as Henry Butcher, City Valuers and was a Director at Hasmi and Associates in 1999. She began her own setups in real estate investment and other ventures by 2007. She is a licenced valuer with the Board of Valuers in Malaysia.


Disclaimer

This article is intended to convey general information only. It does not constitute advice for your specific needs. This article cannot disclose all of the risks and other factors necessary to evaluate a particular situation. Any interested party should study each situation carefully. You should seek and obtain independent professional advice for your specific needs and situation.


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