Parliament: Laws to be strengthened to protect consumers against errant retailers

SINGAPORE - Consumer protection laws will be strengthened to prevent errant retailers from starting new companies, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Minister of State for Trade and Industry on Monday.

He said this when fielding questions in Parliament about recalcitrant shop owners and trading practices - issues that have come under scrutiny since last October after several incidents of questionable sales tactics, particularly in Sim Lim Square, made local and international headlines.

The Consumers Association of Singapore and Singapore Tourism Board currently have authority under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA) to take up court orders against errant retailers to get them to stop unfair business practices.

But owners of such businesses tend to close down and reopen under a different name before they face any penalties. MPs on Monday asked for tighter restrictions and questioned whether existing laws had enough teeth.

Mr Teo said the government was moving to act against retailers who affect consumer confidence and dent Singapore's reputation: "The Government will review the legislation to strengthen the provisions so that quicker action can be taken to deter unfair trading practices and prevent errant retailers from side-stepping restrictions under CPFTA by forming new companies."

The laws are being reviewed and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is looking into the possibility of appointing an agency to investigate and enforce these changes, he added.

Several of the nine MPs who spoke on the issue also had suggestions about how to step up efforts against dishonest shops.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam suggested that a blacklist of such retailers be put up at the airport and major commercial hubs to warn shoppers.

But Mr Teo felt this might give visitors the wrong impression that many shops here are dishonest when, in fact, the vast majority of stores are bona-fide operators: "It is more appropriate to tackle these issues at the local level."

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa suggested that enforcement officers visit shops under the guise of mystery shoppers to check on stores which have many complaints made against them. This is so they can gather evidence so that further action can be taken if necessary.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua said there should be police officers in civilian attire at malls such as Sim Lim Square and Lucky Plaza so that shoppers can make reports easily as an interim measure before changes to the laws are made.

Responding to such suggestions, Mr Teo said that it was important to first assess whether there is an element of criminality before escalating the matter to the police.

Consumers Association of Singapore president and MP for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan also asked whether the police will investigate complaints against errant retailers in Sim Lim Square and prosecute those who have cheated tourists and consumers.

Investigations into the recent Sim Lim Square cases are ongoing, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade & Industry S. Iswaran replied, adding that the police can only investigate if a report or complaint suggests that a criminal offence has been committed.

cherylw@sph.com.sg