Shoppers to get more protection from errant retailers

Shoppers at Sim Lim Square yesterday. The mall gained notoriety in 2014 for an incident involving a Vietnamese tourist. A shop owner there and four of his workers were later jailed for cheating.
Shoppers at Sim Lim Square yesterday. The mall gained notoriety in 2014 for an incident involving a Vietnamese tourist. A shop owner there and four of his workers were later jailed for cheating.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Proposed changes to consumer laws will ensure stringent action

Errant retailers who close their shops and secretly reopen them under a different name may be charged with a criminal offence, if proposed changes to consumer protection laws in Singapore take effect.

Government agency Spring Singapore may also be the first entity with the power - under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act - to investigate and take enforcement action against retailers who persist in unfair practices.

And businesses and individuals who have injunctions taken up against them may have to publicise the court order, so consumers are aware of who the black sheep are.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) will hold a public consultation to gather feedback on these proposed changes to the Act from today until June 15.

The proposed amendments come in the wake of the Jover Chew saga. The former mobile phone shop owner in Sim Lim Square shot to infamy in November 2014 when a video of a Vietnamese tourist begging for the return of his money went viral. He and four of his former employees were jailed last year for cheating. The incident led to calls for stronger consumer protection laws.

Currently, consumers can approach the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) or the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to seek redress. What the agencies can do is help them negotiate with retailers, arrange for mediation or invite retailers to sign an agreement to stop their unfair practices. If the retailer refuses to sign the agreement, or breaches it after signing, the agencies can take up an injunction - a court order to stop the retailer from continuing with unfair practices.

ESSENTIAL

We need this kind of law to create a very fair business environment for tourists as well as local shoppers.

MR KWEK THENG SWEE, vice-chairman of the Sim Lim Square Management Council, on the proposed changes to consumer protection laws.

But even if a court order is issued, business owners tend to close their shops and reopen under a different name to dodge penalties.

MTI noted that both Case and the STB do not have investigation and enforcement powers under the Act.

"Hence, they face operational challenges gathering evidence to submit injunction applications to the courts," said a spokesman.

Under the changes, Spring, a statutory board under MTI, will be able to gather evidence by, for instance, entering premises - with or without a warrant - to search for and seize documents and goods.

The courts may require errant retailers to inform customers about their injunction orders, such as by printing a notice on their invoices.

They may also have to alert Spring when there are changes to their shop's address or employment status. If they fail to comply, they may be charged with contempt of court.

Case said it "strongly supports" MTI's move to review the Act.

"Our hands were tied two years ago, when we were unable to take further action against the errant retailers located at Sim Lim Square, who were engaging in rampant unfair practices towards consumers," said its president Lim Biow Chuan.

Mr Kwek Theng Swee, vice-chairman of the Sim Lim Square Management Council, said: "We need this kind of law to create a very fair business environment for tourists as well as local shoppers."

But he cautioned against taking legal action too quickly: "We should give the retailers one or two chances before taking them to court."

Housewife Linda Tay, 57, said: "There are thousands of retailers out there. It will give me peace of mind if I know if they are good or bad before buying from them."

The public consultation documents will be up on the MTI and Reach websites from today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Shoppers to get more protection from errant retailers'. Print Edition | Subscribe