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CASE – “Complains Are So Easy” but how about actions?

Mobile Air Pte Ltd
Image of Mobile Air. The shop was still open on Tuesday, 4 November. (Image - Terry Xu)

By Terry Xu

By now, most if not all Singaporeans would have read about the story of how Mr Pham, a Vietnamese tourist was here on holiday with his girlfriend on Nov 3, and had saved up to buy the iPhone 6 for her.

After paying $950 for the phone, he was asked to top up $1,500 for warranty. When he asked for a refund, he was offered $600, which his girlfriend refused. Staff of the shop even laughed as he knelt on the floor, begging in tears for the shop to return the money to him.

Eventually, the police and the Consumers Association of Singapore  (CASE) were called in, and he received a refund of $400. Oddly enough, the refund dropped from the $600 to $400.

While mainstream media and social media is focusing on the Mobile Air Ptd Ltd and its owner, Jover Chew for the horrible way that the tourist was treated, let us look back at CASE which is supposed to be a gatekeeper for consumerism in Singapore.

CASE has been investigating Sim Lim Square mobile phone shop Mobile Air for possible violations of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.

CASE executive director Seah Seng Choon said that it was re-investigating all complaints it has received against Mobile Air, and plans to invite the store to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA).

CASE can bring the business to court or obtain an injunction, should it engage in unfair trading practices after signing the agreement. If the shop refuses to sign the VCA, CASE will still be able to apply for an injunction to put a stop to the unfair trading practices.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, president of CASE and Member of Parliament for Mountbatten SMC is also expected to raise this issue during the next Parliament session, and will ask if police can assist further.

As of 1 November 2014, the shop has 25 complaints under its name lodged with CASE. The number of unsatisfied consumers is likely to be higher than those reported by CASE.

It would seem that the public outrage at the behaviour and antics of the retail shop spurred CASE into action. More often, CASE would simply advise complainants that they cannot do anything else except to write in letters for them.

In fact, the closure of the mobile shop at Sim Lim Square seems to be a result of the media pressure surrounding the horrific sale tactics of its salesmen and online vigilant actions by social media, namely by the Facebook fanpage "SMRT Feedback", which disclosed personal details of the owner and his wife. Such vigilantism also included bogus orders to send food delivery under the owner's name.

Moving beyond this horrific story at Sim Lim Square, we have also heard about how electronic shops at Lucky Plaza, People's Park and other tourists hotspot have shop keepers who prey on unsuspecting tourists. Such operations have been going on for years.

So why is CASE such a wimpy and helpless consumer protection agency? Let's look at the formation of CASE to see why was it formed in the first place.

Formed by NTUC in 1971

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) founded CASE, forty-three years ago in 1971. CASE calls itself a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO).

We can see this description in CASE's website:

"It was 1969 - A passionate group of civic conscious consumers and the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) banded together to ignite a flame that sparked off a consumer movement in Singapore. Their call was direct and simple: Consumers' interests must be protected and promoted.

The timing was right. Consumers felt victimised by the increasing abuse of hire purchase practices, pork prices were escalating and there was the proposed increase in prices of bread. The public was outraged and in response to the outcry, CASE was conceived."

In fact, It says a lot about CASE if it was formed by Singapore's "leading worker's union" in Singapore to fight for the rights of consumer, often using a "win-win" approach.

Limited powers of CASE

It can be seen largely as an embarrassment or perhaps a humiliation for CASE as cases such as the one in Sim Lim Square continue to happen despite the presence of the consumer protection agency.

After forty-three years of lobbying for better consumer protection, how better protected are the consumers of Singapore, including tourists?

Basically, CASE has limited power to influence what suppliers or merchants do in the event of dispute with consumers. They would send a letter to the company on your behalf, but if the recipient refuses to respond to CASE, you would have to go back to CASE and they would once again offer to send a letter to contact the company. CASE would still be unable to do anything if the company did not bother to reply.

As CASE writes in their website, "Should the matter reach a stalemate, our officer will advise you on your available options, such as mediation, going to Small Claims Tribunals or other legal options."

CASE registration counter at Sim Lim
CASE registration counter at Sim Lim Square. (Image - Terry Xu)

CASE has a registration counter at malls like Sim Lim Square, because if you want to file a case with CASE due to any complaints you might have about shop owners, you have to first register to be a CASE member in order for CASE's Consumer Relations Officer to "correspond with the retailer on your behalf to work towards an amicable resolution."

You can choose what membership you want (refer to the table below) and to process your complaint, you will have to pay S$10.70 administrative fee first (for disputes less than S$5,000).

membership fees
screengrab from CASE

Therefore, looking at the hassle of filing a complaint with CASE, you have to be very determined to have your case brought up to authorities before one would register as a member and to file a complaint with CASE.

If you are not a CASE member, the "NGO" will help you draft a letter to the retailer to communicate your concerns and your ideal outcome. You will have to then deliver this letter personally to the company. But note that CASE will not follow up on the dispute on your behalf.

How different is CASE from its counterparts elsewhere?

"Consumer organizations are advocacy groups that seek to protect people from corporate abuse like unsafe products, predatory lending, false advertising,astroturfing and pollution.

Consumer organizations may operate via protests, litigation, campaigning, or lobbying. They may engage in single-issue advocacy or they may set themselves up as more general consumer watchdogs.

One common means of providing consumers useful information is the independent comparative survey or test of products or services, involving different manufacturers or companies"

...Consumer organizations may attempt to serve consumer interests by relatively direct actions such as creating and/or disseminating market information, and prohibiting specific acts or practices,or by promoting competitive forces in the markets which directly or indirectly affect consumers (such as transport, electricity, communications, etc.)"

Like the saying goes in Thailand, "Same same but different". The consumer protection agency in Singapore is largely different from its counterparts in other parts of the world, especially in first world countries where consumer protection organisations strive to be independent from government influences, especially for funding.

Take for instance the Consumers' Association in the United Kingdom. The majority of the association's income comes from the profit it makes on its trading businesses. For instance, subscriptions to Which? magazine are donated to the organisation to fund advocacy activity and inform the public about consumer issues. Which? magazine maintains its independence by not accepting advertising and the organisation receives no government funding.

Furthermore, with independence from government bodies, corporate entities and political parties, such consumer associations are free to lobby against commercial policies which are detrimental towards consumers.

In 1996, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced a one-for-one dollar matching grant up to $5 million for the CASE Endowment Fund at the National Day Rally. At that point, CASE is still under the NTUC family before turning "independent".

Independence is seen as an important part of consumer protection organisation because it should not be seen or perceived to be influenced by financiers especially from government institutions or corporate entities.

The consumer protection organisations could also help the consumer launch litigation on behalf of them instead of just writing letters to expect a courtesy response from merchants.

An agency closely aligned with the government interest

Lim Biow Chuan, current president of CASE.
Lim Biow Chuan, current president of CASE. (Image - TODAY)

As a "NGO" formed by Singapore's largest workers' union, it is puzzling how a non-government organisation is being headed by Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People's Action Party. The current president of CASE is Mr Lim Biow Chuan, MP for Mountbatten SMC and his predecessor who headed CASE for 10 years is Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC. The "NGO" has also been headed by other PAP MPs over the years since its formation.

In Singapore's economic landscape, the bulk of local transactions and businesses revolves around government-linked companies (GLCs) like SingPost, SingTel, SMRT and NTUC's various businesses.

This non-profit "NGO" headed by MPs from PAP will find it hard if not impossible to act on behalf of consumers who have grievances about services and sales from such commercial entities.

An example is the Ez-link cards which requires a consumer to pay a S$5 deposit for the card and the card "expires" after 5 years. Many consumers then questioned the need for this deposit and the short expiry date. EZ-link has offered to renew the cards for free in the recent renewal programme, but the clause remains unfair to consumers.

In such cases, an individual would be unable to act alone as a consumer, but a consumer protection agency like CASE should have intervened on behalf of consumers at large to seek to change of terms in the validity of the card.

Or in the case of telcos, CASE seems speechless about protection for consumers from the established monopoly by the three key players, despite the regular price hikes.

In 2002, CASE was accused by its founder and sponsor, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), of dabbling in unspecified issues it should not have touched on.

Following that the 13 members resigned from CASE included lawyer Stephen Loke, who chaired several committees within the organisation.

Mr Loke told The Straits Times he had been contemplating resigning since February when Yeo Guat Kwang, then director of NTUC, took over as CASE's president.

"The differences in the current ideology and what I envisage Case to be are becoming quit obvious," Loke said in an interview about the mass walkout.

For real consumer associations

Consumer associations can only be feared by errant merchants, if they have a strong following of members and finances raised from the supporters of the associations.

A real consumer association would have lobbied for actions from authorities to take action against the errant merchants and to feature the shops in a not-to-visit list, instead of simply noting the number of complaints it has received.

In the case of Mobile Air, the shop has chalked up 25 complaints up to 1 November. If CASE had took action instead of sitting on the issue, Mr Pham wouldn't have to experience such an unpleasant incident in his stay in Singapore.

We can also see how Singaporeans were quick to chip in to donate to the cause of the tourist. If there was a real independent consumer association, it would be reasonable to believe that people will donated to the association instead to help the tourist offset his losses and to commence real legal action against the errant shop.

But what we have here in Singapore is a consumer association which can only advise and write letters, leaving Singaporeans like Gabriel Kang to raise funds to help the victims, and for social media platforms like SMRT Ltd Feedback to launch potentially illegal online vigilant actions.