Shopping paradise gets a kneecapping

It just takes a few bad sheep for Singapore's tourist destination status to go to the dogs

Jover Chew, beady-eyed, pudgy of face and haircut from the 1980s, has managed to make himself the most detested man in Singapore. I can hear sighs of relief from blundering event organisers, book-pulping librarians, MRT weirdos and last week's road bully caught on video.

The only way Jover could have made himself more despised online was if he were a foreigner, but as far as we know, he is a Singaporean. So for many online vigilantes, the issue is frustratingly complicated - "go home foreign scum" is a much easier solution than "please carry out an act of state-sanctioned punishment on this sociopathic monster whose clever manipulation of contract law allows him to ride roughshod over the basic rules of human decency".

And therein lies the problem. He and his smirking buddies operate within the legal framework, and they know it. He cannot be charged under the criminal code, and based on the time in 1981 when I was ripped off by a bait-and-switch shop while buying a shortwave radio, nothing of substance has changed.

Our man Jover stands head and shoulders above the usual run-of-the-mill scammer because even after he was in the news for using a wagon-load of coins to pay a court-ordered sum of $1,010 to a customer from China, he and his friends almost immediately "conned" a Vietnamese tourist, whose image, kneeling and in tears begging for his money back, made international news.

You've got to hand it to Jover - he knows how to do a big follow-up.

So while he and his friends merrily flush away millions of taxpayer dollars spent promoting Singapore as a tourist destination in Vietnam, India and the Philippines, we are beginning to hear about action being taken at the higher levels, to supplement the Consumers Association of Singapore and Sim Lim Square management's name-and-shame campaign, which has been running for some time.

The problem with name-and- shame is that it works only when people have a name they want to protect. Jover and his kind do not. Also, I'm not sure Jover's sense of shame is in full working order.

I believe the intensity of the public rage at this salesman from hell comes from our deep-seated frustration with Joverish types infesting our island, pouring their brand of sneery disregard over the things we take for granted because we are civilised people.

There's a bit of Jover in the person who answers an ad to buy a thing you've advertised, then flakes out or tries to lowball when it's time to hand the cash over. There's a Jover in the idiot who causes a road accident, then tries to intimidate or confuse you over car repair costs.

Jovers selling financial products hype the upside, forget the downside. Jover bosses delay salary payments till the last possible moment, or exert pressure on troublemakers who dare to exercise employee rights.

Jovers think they are super-slick because they know the law. They are completely immoral, yet totally legal, and they are fine with that.

I walked around Sim Lim Square last Thursday. I visit the place a few times a year, because I like shiny new toys. I talked to a shopkeeper I buy things from, on the fifth level. Like Orchard Towers, Lucky Plaza and the lorongs of Geylang, Sim Lim Square has "good" areas and "bad" ones.

She talked about how the police have come by, it seems, almost every day since the time she started work at the shopping mall a decade ago. If a building could have its own criminal record, Sim Lim Square qualifies.

In the 1990s, cops came because of the pirate movie and software CD shops. Today, it is because of the Jovers lurking at the lower levels of the building, doing their bit to change the image of Singapore as a dull place where nothing exciting happens.

Could there be a new T-shirt to complement the one about how "Singapore is a fine city"? How about "In Singapore, I shopped till I dropped - to my knees!"

The shopkeepers on the ground level of the centre seemed to be in a cheery mood, despite the bad publicity. When a news photographer snapped a picture of the level one shops, I saw one salesman in a shady store grin and give a jaunty V for victory hand sign.

He's a smug fellow. It's not against the law to gloat over the misfortune of others, and to know that there is a sucker born every minute. Or to get people to sign away their money. Or to pay a debt in the most petty, vicious way possible.

It might all be legal. But it is sure as heck disgusting.

johnlui@sph.com.sg