Parliament: Panel to address cost of living concerns among plans to empower consumers

Promoting consumer awareness and empowerment is among the ways the Ministry of Trade and Industry aims to strengthen consumer protection. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) will form a panel to help address Singaporeans' cost of living concerns, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry Tan Wu Meng said on Tuesday (March 3).

The Consumer Empowerment Panel, to be convened in April, will work with associations, unions and grassroots leaders to help consumers stretch their dollar, he told Parliament during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Promoting consumer awareness and empowerment is among the ways the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) aims to strengthen consumer protection, he added.

Dr Tan was responding to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who had asked whether the powers of the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) could be broadened to enable it to deal more effectively with errant retailers.

He also said the Government will study Mr Lim's suggestion.

"But there is also a need to balance between consumers' interests and a pro-business environment," he said.

Mr Lim, in calling for the CCCS to be given extra powers, had noted at Monday's (March 2) parliametary sitting that it can impose financial penalties for violations of the Competition Act but lacks the same remedy in its consumer protection role.

Mr Lim, who is the president of Case, said that under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA),the CCCS may apply for an injunction to order a persistently errant business to cease an unfair practice.

Before doing so, however, it has to conduct an investigation and take statements from consumers, said Mr Lim.

"This process is quite tedious and not all consumers will want to spend their personal time giving statements to CCCS and appearing in court as witnesses."

"Sometimes, if the consumer needs to be publicly identified as someone who has been taken advantage of, the consumer may rather not be embarrassed," he added.

Mr Lim asked if the CPFTA could be amended to give the CCCS the option to impose financial penalties on such retailers instead of applying for a court injunction.

The CCCS has obtained two such injunctions since it took over the administration of the Act from Spring Singapore in 2018. Observers have said the process can be lengthy and ineffective, and called for stronger consumer protection laws and enforcement.

Currently, there are no monetary penalties for breaches of consumer law.

Dr Tan replied that MTI will review laws on competition and consumer protection to ensure they continue to be effective in deterring unfair practices.

MTI told The Straits Times that it is looking at the possibility of widening enforcement options for the CCCS to include administrative penalties for infringing suppliers, as suggested by Mr Lim.

"We will study the experiences of other jurisdictions on the effectiveness of administrative penalties as a deterrent against errant suppliers," a spokesman said.

Dr Tan said MTI has also cracked down on retailers who jacked up the prices of surgical masks, among other items, in the current Covid-19 outbreak.

"We recently exercised our powers under the Price Control Act to ask two retailers... to show us the basis of their prices," he said.

The retailers apologised and reduced their prices, and the Ministry is continuing to monitor the situation, he added.

Dr Tan also told the House the CCCS has developed a set of price transparency guidelines for businesses that will be published at a later date.

Consumers can also use the Price Kaki app developed by Case last year to make well-informed purchasing decisions, he added.

This pilot effort allows users to input and access up-to-date information on prices and discounts at supermarkets and hawker centres in three neighbourhoods: Tampines, Toa Payoh and Jurong West.

Since its launch in September 2019, the app has attracted almost 15,000 registered users who have provided more than 500,000 crowdsourced entries.

It will rolled out across the island in the coming months, Dr Tan said.

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