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Photo of the now-closed Mobile Air retail shop (Terry Xu)

Government in talks for stricter laws to combat errant retailers

After a series of high-profile convictions of errant retailers in Sim Lin Square, the Government has proposed changes in legislature that would allow stricter action to be taken against these retailers. The proposed amendments will affect the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.

The proposed changes to the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act will give more power to the Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board (Spring Singapore), which is a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI).

Amendments would include allowing public officers from government agency Spring Singapore to enter the premises of any store with or without a warrant to seize evidence against suspected errant retailers. They can then file a court injunction for the closing of the retailer's business.

The courts may then require the retailer to make their status as a recipient of a court injunction order known to the public in order for consumers to make informed purchases. The affected retailer will also have to notify Spring Singapore about any future name changes to its business. Failing to comply to court orders may result in retailers being charged with contempt of court, a criminal offence.

Currently, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) can provide affected consumers with redress. However, these agencies are still not allowed to carry out investigations into retailers. They can only aid unhappy consumers in negotiation and mediation with retailers. In more serious cases, a court order can be taken up to prevent the retailer from engaging in future unfair practices.

CASE has expressed its agreement to the proposals to amend the Act. CASE's president Lim Biow Chuan, who is also a Member of Parliament from the People's Action Party, noted that, "Our hands were tied two years ago, when we were unable to take further action against the errant retailers located at Sim Lim Square, who were engaging in rampant unfair practices towards consumers."

He also added that the changes would likely bring an end to the current "repetitive cat-and-mouse game," where errant businesses that were ordered to close would simply set up a new shop under a different name. In such cases, CASE was unable to enforce the Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA) or injunction.

Sim Lim Square's management council was also consulted in the review of the Act, and while their response has been largely positive, vice-chairman of the management council Mr Kwek Theng Swee still felt that other agencies had to be involved as well in order to prevent conflicts between customers and retailers from occurring at all.

Sim Lim Square, which is notable for shops selling various electronic gadgets and technology has had its fair share of controversies regarding errant businesses, including an incident in 2014 where a Vietnamese tourist was filmed grovelling at a shopfront for a refund. The shop owner and four employees were jailed for cheating after a public outroar and subsequent police investigation.

Mr Kwek cited trade association as an example of the agencies playing a part, noting that they could set a standard code of conduct for retailers.

"And then sometimes when the problem goes beyond that, then you can come out to help the Government as well as the shopper to settle it," he added.

Currently, the MTI is holding a public consultation regarding the proposed changes to the Act. The consultation will be ongoing until 15 June. (view here for more information)