It is heartening that the Government is thinking about strengthening the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act in the light of malpractices that drew public attention. One measure being contemplated is the appointment of an agency within the Ministry of Trade and Industry to gather evidence against errant retailers. That agency would work closely with the Consumers Association of Singapore to take action against such retailers. With a review of the Act now complete, a public consultation of the recommended changes will follow later this year. That would be an opportune moment for Singaporeans to contribute their views on the important evolution of a law to protect both citizens and tourists from the sharp practices of unscrupulous shop owners.
Consumer concerns peaked in the aftermath of incidents of questionable sales tactics, particularly in Sim Lim Square, which made local and international headlines. A key issue is that while the consumers' association and the Singapore Tourism Board are authorised to take up court orders against errant retailers, owners of such businesses tend to close down and reopen under a different name before they face any penalties. Suggestions to tackle the problem include a blacklist of such retailers posted at the airport and major commercial hubs to warn shoppers. Some have advocated the use of undercover enforcement officers to visit notorious stores to gather evidence.
Useful as these deterrents could be, the larger point is the need to balance the punishment of dishonest traders with the protection of bona fide businesses, which outnumber the recalcitrants. Clearly, Singapore's reputation as a shoppers' paradise calls for a strong message to merchants that they cannot circumvent the law. Equally, however, honest traders must not suffer from a general loss of trust and confidence brought about by precipitate official action. One way to strike a balance would be to oblige retailers, who have had court orders made against them, to notify customers, even if they open a new business under a different name. That way, culpability would remain attached to individual traders without tarnishing the reputation of entire shopping centres and targeting the livelihoods of retailers who play and survive by the stringent rules for which Singapore is known.
It is in the interests of the retail community to support the new measures. Businessmen who take short cuts to unwarranted profits, by employing intimidatory tactics to overwhelm the unsuspecting customer from abroad, undercut the prospects of those retailers who offer tourists and locals alike real value for their shopping dollar. Weeding out the recalcitrants will help reliable businesses contribute to, and thrive on, Singapore's signature reputation as a country for the discerning and also the trusting shopper.