New bankruptcy cases hit four-year high

Overspending, business failure and unemployment cited as main reasons

The number of people made bankrupt last year rose by 14 per cent to reach 1,992 - the highest since 2009. -- ST FILE PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN
The number of people made bankrupt last year rose by 14 per cent to reach 1,992 - the highest since 2009. -- ST FILE PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

The number of people made bankrupt last year rose by 14 per cent to reach 1,992 - the highest since 2009.

The Insolvency and Public Trustee's Office (IPTO) under the Ministry of Law gave general reasons for the rise: overspending, business failure and unemployment.

Certainly, the overall jobless rate has risen - from 1.8 per cent at end-2012 to 2.2 per cent in June last year, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

The business environment also got tougher last year.

For instance, high vehicle costs, on the back of sky-high Certificate of Entitlement prices, have hit small and medium-sized businesses hard, while strident curbs on car loans have sent sales plunging by up to half, noted the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association. Membership of the association has also shrunk, from 410 to around 390, since the curbs kicked in, indicating that some traders have folded.

People here are also borrowing more, according to the Credit Bureau Singapore.

The amount of bad debt owed by individuals hit $425.92million last year - 26 per cent higher than in 2009.

This is even though the number of defaulters fell, from 28,266 to 24,698, over the same period.

The effects of gambling also cannot be ruled out, said financial expert Leong Sze Hian. The two integrated resorts, Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands, opened in 2010.

He said that when he was invited to Tokyo in 2010 to speak on casinos, he did some research and found that bankruptcy cases crept up "in every country after a casino has opened".

Observers are mixed, however, over whether the Debt Repayment Scheme, started in 2009 to help people avoid bankruptcy, has reduced or added to bankruptcy cases.

The programme applies to those who are employed and owe not more than $100,000. They must pay off their debt in instalments within five years.

Mr Leong, who counsels bankrupts, says people unable to keep up with their debt instalment plan payments under the scheme may now be emerging as bankruptcy statistics.

But lawyer Vijai Parwani, who serves bankruptcy notices on

behalf of motor firms and credit companies, said new bankruptcy cases would have been significantly higher if not for the scheme.

Last year, 1,968 people were put on the scheme - 15 per cent more than in 2012.

Mr Parwani added that with new guidelines on borrowings introduced last year, new bankruptcy cases should dip soon.

The good news is that the number of undischarged bankrupts has been shrinking, from around 26,000 four years ago to 24,300 last year.

But it remains hard for some to get themselves discharged. Like Ms Celeste Quek, 40.

Ms Quek told The Straits Times that she became a bankrupt in 2004 after accumulating debts of around $77,000.

This was because her late husband, with whom she had joint accounts, drew on credit lines "to lend friends and siblings money".

"It was very silly," she recounted. "Each year, the interest, at 24 per cent, just kept escalating."

The former sales manager said the hardest part of being a bankrupt was not being able to secure a proper job.

She does not understand why she could not be discharged "after such a long time".

"All our insurance policies, including the children's, were surrendered when we became bankrupt," she noted.

IPTO said it could not comment on Ms Quek's case for privacy reasons.

But in deciding on whether a bankrupt could be discharged, the office "carefully considers every aspect of each case and takes into account changes in the bankrupt's circumstances along the way".

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