SINGAPORE, June 3 — The state coroner today described the deaths of an elderly couple and their son as a “truly tragic accident”, more than a year after they were fatally electrocuted due to an improperly installed water heater.

Omar Manan, 80, was taking a shower in the bathroom of his Ho Ching Road flat in Jurong when he collapsed on Dec 10 in 2020. His wife Asmah Bujang, 66, then went to help her husband and was similarly electrocuted.

Their 45-year-old son, Muhamad Ashikin Omar, also tragically died after going to the flat with his teenage daughter and trying to help his parents.

State Coroner Adam Nakhoda ruled their deaths a misadventure.

He said that he agreed with an investigator’s findings that the main cause of the family’s deaths was the “wholly inappropriate” use of a three-pin plug with a 13-amp fuse for the couple’s instant water heater.

Internal cables within the plug had fused together over prolonged usage, allowing the current to course through the trio.

State Coroner Nakoda concluded that a double pole switch with a standalone circuit should have been used.

Members of the public can identify this by taking note of switches often seen outside bathrooms with water heaters installed. When homeowners switch on the water heater, a red light will be illuminated.

A double pole switch outside a bathroom being pressed for a water heater that is typically installed in public flats. Such switches should be used, electricians said, instead of a power socket for a standard three-pin plug often seen in other home appliances. — TODAY pic
A double pole switch outside a bathroom being pressed for a water heater that is typically installed in public flats. Such switches should be used, electricians said, instead of a power socket for a standard three-pin plug often seen in other home appliances. — TODAY pic

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) began installing water heater connections with double pole switches only in the late 1980s.

The couple’s flat was built in 1971 when instant water heaters were not around, while the couple’s water heater was installed sometime after 2008.

Investigations by the Energy Market Authority revealed that according to the installation manual for the water heater, the couple’s water heater should have been connected to a double pole switch with a standalone circuit.

Lessons to be learned

Homeowners should not use such a three-pin plug or a 13-amp fuse for bathroom appliances such as instant water heaters. They should check their bathroom for connection points meant for water heaters instead, State Coroner Nakoda said.

If there are no such points, homeowners should engage a licensed electrical worker to install a standalone circuit for the water heater.

Homeowners should also engage a qualified technician to connect the heater to a connection point.

Homeowners should further ensure that their home appliances are approved for use in Singapore and have the necessary safety marks. Appliances with large power requirements should be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

Residual current circuit breaker

State Coroner Nakhoda noted in the case of the couple’s flat, the water heater drew from a circuitry that was not protected by a residual current circuit breaker (RCCB). If it had been, the circuit breaker would have tripped and cut off the flat’s entire electricity supply.

This was not a requirement when the flat was built.

An RCCB was installed when the flat underwent an upgrading programme in the early 2000s, but it protected circuitry only in the utility room and would not have interrupted the electricity supply to the water heater.

The coroner said that a home’s entire electrical installations should be protected by an RCCB but he made no specific comment on the lack of protection in this instance.

Following March’s inquiry hearing, HDB told TODAY that all new homes built after 1985 are required to be equipped with an RCCB.

It added that flat owners should also test this circuit breaker regularly to ensure that it is in good working condition. This can be done by pressing the test button monthly.

Homeowners may approach any HDB branch for advice and consider engaging a contractor for electrical works listed on the HDB Infoweb, the statutory board said.

On Friday, the family’s relatives — including the couple’s daughter and Ashikin’s wife — declined comment when approached by reporters.

What happened

On that fateful evening in 2020, Ashikin’s daughter had called him and her mother after failing to reach her grandparents on the phone.

When Ashikin and the girl went over to the flat, they heard the sound of water flowing. Ashikin managed to break open the padlock securing the main metal gate and they rushed in, finding the couple in a toilet near the kitchen.

Omar was naked and lying face-up, while his wife Asmah was slumped over with her head and chest pressed against the wall.

Ashikin’s daughter then saw her father make contact with her grandfather while calling out, “Mak”, which is Malay for mother.

Ashikin then collapsed on top of his father. In a state of shock, the girl called her mother who in turn contacted the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

State Coroner Nakhoda said that Asmah would have gone to the bathroom to check on her husband when he collapsed, understandably out of her love for him. He suffered from several chronic diseases and had undergone an angioplasty a few years earlier to to widen blocked or narrowed arteries supplying blood to the heart.

There would have been no indication of an electrical problem because the flat’s electricity did not trip. When she stepped barefooted onto the wet bathroom floor, she would have been electrocuted, the coroner said.

When Ashikin went over, he would not have given any thought as to how his parents had collapsed and would not have seen the large burns on their skin as well, the coroner added.

State Coroner Nakhoda concluded his findings by giving his condolences to their families for their loss. — TODAY