We Singaporeans have many common phrases. One of these is “Not happy, call police lah!”. We’re very quick to make police reports for every discernible offence – whether truly illegal or not. Like when Edz Ello made offensive comments against Singaporeans on Facebook, or when Amos Yee posted an offensive video, we’re very quick to make police reports.
And the police are relatively quick to respond too. Amos Yee was charged within 6 weeks of his video being posted, Edz Ello in about 3 months. In fact, you could say that our justice system is so powerful, it’s like using a lightning bolt to kill an ant, when even a hammer would be considered overkill.
The one aspect where our justice system takes a long time to respond, however? Unfair business practices. Remember Jover Chew? He’s been officially charged with cheating 25 victims, though I’m sure he’s cheated many, many more. And he (and many others) might have gotten away with even more such crimes had the latest one not gone viral and attracted Internet “vigilanteh-ism”.
In such situations, the only option consumers have is to raise the problem to CASE, the Consumers Association of Singapore. Recently, CASE took a furniture businessman to court, but only after they had received 44 complaints against the businessman since 2008. It took 7 years and 44 complaints before something could be done? Really?
Before we begin, here’s what CASE cannot do
CASE handles disputes between consumers and local businesses mainly by mediation. However, many Singaporeans think they do more than that. For example, CASE does not handle:
- Disputes between companies
- Disputes between landlords and tenants
- Disputes over shares, stocks, commodities and other investments
- Disputes as a result of road accidents
- Disputes with overseas businesses
Now here’s what CASE actually does
Firstly, the merchant must have actually done something against the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act. This means merchants must have done something that would be considered “unfair”. For example, the furniture businessman collected full payment for items he did not have and therefore could not deliver by their promised delivery date. Another example would be a travel agency or fitness spa closing down after taking money from consumers.
CASE then tries to contact and mediate with the merchant. CASE will try to get the merchants to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement, which means they have to agree to stop their unfair practice. If the merchant doesn’t want to sign the Voluntary Compliance Agreement, then, and only then will CASE take up an injunction against them. This means that CASE is taking legal action against the merchant, and ignoring the court order means being in contempt of court.
According to CASE, 90 per cent of the complaints were settled directly by the consumers. In fact, since 2004, CASE has only applied for 6 injunctions against merchants.
So if the procedure is that simple, then why does CASE seem so ineffective?
At the risk of being overly simplistic, it’s because CASE doesn’t have “teeth”, since it cannot treat these errant merchants as criminals. In other words, they can only try help the consumer come to a resolution with the merchant, no more, no less.
This is especially problematic if the consumers themselves don’t keep detailed proof of transactions such as receipts with the merchant’s name and the cost of the item.
Say you have a problem with a merchant and you go to CASE. CASE will first send a letter to the merchant to request a meeting. Naturally, if the merchant is well aware that what he’s doing to you is wrong, he’s just going to ignore the letter from CASE and continue with his “unfair practices”.
Maybe you feel things aren’t moving as fast as you want. You have to take the initiative to keep chasing CASE for a resolution. What will happen? They send yet another letter to the merchant and wait for a reply. In fact, CASE can do very little if the company does not reply.
It’s not clear how many complaints have to be filed against a merchant before CASE moves to the next step, which is to get the merchants to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement.
The furniture businessman had 44 complaints altogether between 2008 and 2015, but 32 of those complaints or 72% of them came only in the past 2 years alone. In other words, the businessman probably got greedy and angered enough consumers that’s why he got caught.
In the meantime, he had set up a total of three furniture businesses under different names. Since CASE can only target businesses, a strategy is simply to close down and open another company under a different name with different shareholders and continue to trap unsuspecting consumers.
What can be done to give CASE more “teeth” then?
Although there are possible improvements being discussed, including setting up yet another agency within the Ministry of Trade and Industry to deal with the more serious offenders, here are three ways we feel CASE can make a difference now.
1. CASE needs to have the ability to investigate and enforce their power
Currently, as a non-governmental organisation, CASE is probably already utilising most of their limited resources just to handle consumer complaints alone. They will need more resources to proactively investigate errant merchants and catch them in the act, rather than passively wait for more consumers to complain before taking action.
2. CASE needs to be able to impose criminal sanctions
You know what this merchant is doing is wrong. CASE knows what his merchant is doing is wrong. If so, they should be able to bring the merchants to court immediately for their crimes. Right now, they have to wait for the merchant to IGNORE a court order before they can bring criminal charges.
3. CASE needs to be able to stop individual retailers from doing business
Right now, all CASE can do is put up consumer warnings and maintain a blacklist of merchants to discourage you from buying from them. That’s. All. Because they can’t target individual retailers, all these errant merchants need to do is just open up a new business under a new name. CASE must be given the power to stop an individual from ever owning a business, or in the least opening up a business in a similar industry.
What do you feel about CASE and their role as a consumer watchdog? We want to hear from you.
Research by: Samuel Tan