Only a few bad digital apples at Sim Lim Square?

Sim Lim Square wide
Sim Lim Square (Image – Terry Xu)
By Gangasudhan
The press conference by the management of Sim Lim Square on Friday included the nugget of information that there are about 10 retailers who have been blacklisted amongst the 500 operating in the building.
Channel NewsAsia (CNA) and TODAY were kind enough to downplay the tone by declaring there are “Only 10 black sheep out of almost 500 retailers” and “Only 10 black sheep out of 500 retailers” – comically, CNA puts the count as ‘almost 500’ while TODAY says it is ‘over 500’, when the actual figure is 453 stores, according to the Sim Lim Square website. The ever-helpful Straits Times meanwhile helped the cause by pointing at other shopping malls with a bad rep instead (“Sim Lim Square in the spotlight: Other malls with rogue retailers”).
But is 2.2% of the shopping mall being unscrupulous money traps really such a negligent value? How about if we juxtapose that this 2.2% of one shopping mall accounts for 86 cases between August and October this year out of a possible 7,500 island-wide (based on the 2013 average of about 2,500 complaints a month) – which works out to 1.15% of the whole of Singapore? And these are just the numbers based on complaints submitted to CASE alone – the mall’s management, by its own admission, suggests that “Sim Lim Square gets 2 to 3 complaints daily”, which works out to anything between 180 and 270 complaints and/or disputes within a typical August to October period.
While a business behaving almost criminally to boost profits is not out of this world by any measure, the public especially finds great distaste in the way that these shops have been allowed to prey on consumers with impunity.
It can be argued that a government’s core responsibility is in ensuring that citizens’ rights to certain expectations are not compromised, and when those rights are violated that the repercussion is swift with restitution to the victims. In the case of the Sim Lim Square retailers in question, there does not seem to be any real repercussion, let alone any meaningful restitution.
CASE registration counter at Sim Lim
CASE registration counter (Image – Terry Xu)
CASE has gone all out to appear as toothless as many claim, with the final outcome being a resolute warning – to consumers – that it is a buyer-beware market. If this were an issue of rape and the organization advocating on behalf of rape victims issued an advisory that victims should exercise their right not to be raped by staying indoors, imagine the backlash.
Scamming customers vs digital piracy – no contest
But the most telling of where the government’s priorities lie might be in how the authorities deal with digital piracy. Just a whiff of a retailer trying to sell some counterfeit products that ultimately denies the poor multi-million dollar corporations any cent of profit, and the public can witness some outstanding enforcement leading to impressive convictions and a copious serving of justice – in 2012, 13 were fined for selling pirated software at Sim Lim Square, including a sales assistant who received a fine of $10,200.
Apparently, we get no less than officers from the Intellectual Property Rights Branch (IPRB) of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) coming down with representatives of Sony Computer Entertainment and Nintendo to conduct raids at Sim Lim Square when there are shops selling pirated software. When there are “18 complaints against Sim Lim Square’s Mobile Air this year”, however, the guilty shop gets invited to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement which CNA describes as the “latest action taken against the store”.
Why not criminal charges?
While there is only reference to the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA), which offers the limited recourse of the proverbial slap on the wrist and finger waving, it seems as though criminal charges under Section 420 of the Penal Code (i.e. cheating), or Section 384 of the Penal Code (i.e. extortion), could be just as easily proffered.
According to Section 415 of Chapter 224, cheating is where someone “intentionally induces the person so deceived to do or omit to do anything which he would not do or omit to do if he were not so deceived”, which pretty much sums up the action of the Sim Lim Square “recalcitrant retailers”.
According to Section 383 of Chapter 224, anyone who “intentionally puts any person in fear of any harm to that person or to any other person, in body, mind, reputation or property, whether such harm is to be caused legally or illegally” is guilty of extortion.
With customers clearly being misled into believing that they are paying a certain amount for a product, only then to be told that they are liable to pay extra for some compulsory bogus requirement, a case of deception can be made. When threats are made to force customers into coughing up the bogus payment, the ingredients that make up the offence of extortion appear obvious.
Would it then seem logical to take this to the next level by initiating criminal proceedings, should there be reason to suspect that thugs are masquerading as businesses? But somehow, this train of thought evades the authorities and the government machinery altogether. When the simple act of asking someone to take the rap for parking summonses can be escalated to an offence that secures the sentence of six weeks to ”deter others from committing the same offence”, why not in this case, especially when there is the obvious necessity to protect the consumers’ reasonable expectations?
Alas, this does not seem to be a thread of logic that will be pursued, especially when the peculiar case of Singapore consumer protection can be explained by the following facts:

  1. If a customer switches price tags on two items so that he can trick the shopkeeper into accepting less payment, that’s cheating under Section 420 of the Penal Code and the customer will be arrested, charged in a criminal court and jailed.
  2. If a shopkeeper switches the price tags on two items so that he can trick the customer into giving more payment, that’s just unfair practice under Section 4(a) of the CPTA and the shopkeeper can be sued (at the consumer’s cost, time and effort) in a civil court.

Is it any wonder then that consumers have to resort to activism in the form of a vulgar t-shirt in front of the offending shop in Sim Lim Square and a crowd-funding drive to raise money to reimburse the victim, to seek out justice themselves?

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