Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Amendment Bill – Speech by Dennis Tan Lip Fong

(Delivered in Parliament on 13 September 2016)

Madam speaker, I am in support of strengthening existing laws to provide better protection for consumers. Whether it is to protect local shoppers or foreign tourists. It may only take a few bad hats give a bad name to Singapore. We cannot afford that as Singapore is a major retail centre of the world.

Madam, I have a few clarifications to make. Clause 12I of the Bill provides that in connection with an investigation under section 12G(1), the authority may have power to enter premises without warrant. It sets out the requirements of a prior written notice e.g. giving 2 working days’ written notice of the intended entry, indicating the subject matter and purpose of the investigation and is accompanied with a copy of the offences alleged. Under this provision, an investigation officer may be empowered to inspect and search the premises, take photos or videos of the premises or persons in the premises, seize or detain goods, bring necessary equipment, require someone at the premises to produce documents or to take away information stored in digital form, etc.

Clause 12J of the Bill then provides for power to enter premises under a court warrant in cases where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that there are documents on premises which have not been produced or may be required to be produced or where officers attempted to enter under the conditions in clause 12I but failed to do so.

Madam, I would like to know the rationale for having the power to enter premises without warrant under clause 12I of the Bill to search, take photos, and to seize and detain goods. Would it not be more appropriate to require officers to seek a Court warrant first in all cases, like what is required in clause 12J? We should not be lowering the threshold for entering premises and carrying out searches or seizure for different kinds of offences. Let the courts be a point of control and oversight to decide whether any entry, search or seizure is actually necessary. The presence of a notice, while admittedly is better than none, does not take away the fact that the powers to enter and, take photos, seize or detain without a court warrant are draconian. Let us not take such searches lightly. Carry out searches by all means if the court sanctions it but do not make it easier for searches to be carried out without a warrant from the court.

Madam, next I would like to ask the Minister how does the new administering authority intend to ensure that retailers who are subject to injunctions put up notices to all and sundry that they are objects of such injunctions and that potential customers see such notices before they enter into any transactions with such retailers? How is this going to be administered? If it is not administered effectively and consistently by the authority, the injunctions will be less effective and may fail in preventing the very acts that the present Bill is seeking to prevent. It would be too late when the customer enters into a transaction and be subject to unfair practice. Above all, consumers, local or otherwise, must be confident that when they go to any shop, whether in Orchard Road or in Sim Lim Square or when they shop online, they can without question, expect retailers to behave honourably and ethically and will not engage in unfair practices.

Madam I am in support of the proposed amendments in Schedule 2 which included various forms of conduct as unfair practices. But I also wonder whether the current Act and the Amendment Bill may be sufficient to deal with businesses where customers signed on to a term subscription package like gym, spa, hair or nail salon, or travel packages. Madam, on one hand, I recognise the attraction of the bulk business that may come to small businesses with a term subscription package, how it can help to keep customer loyalty and provide good cash flow for the business. On the other hand, I also recognise that the discounts that come with a fixed term package may be attractive to the consumers. I myself signed up with California Fitness many years ago shortly after they have opened in Singapore. Californoa Fitness was recently in the news for its sudden collapse, leaving in the lurch many customers who have signed up for gym packages. My wife and I have also signed up regularly for foot massage packages at our favourite joint. Such term packages can often be a win-win deal for both businesses and customers.

I am aware that the Consumer Association of Singapore has the Casetrust accreditation scheme which covers certain businesses e.g. renovation companies, employment agencies, spas and travel agencies. Under the scheme, some form of deposits or insurance may be required from participating businesses. But the scheme does not cover all businesses and is dependent on Case working out the arrangements and accreditation with the relevant trade association.

May I ask the Minister whether he has considered amending legislation to require a secured payment mode such as customers making payment to a reliable third party body who can then dispense payment to retailers as each session is utilised by consumers or by use of a performance bond? This may already be in place on a voluntary or more limited basis than I am thinking here, but Madam, we really should do more to prevent retailers from looking to bulk payment for packages as quick and easy solutions for business cash flow and to give consumers peace of mind when they sign up for term subscription packages. Alternatively, the government may wish to consider starting a scheme to encourage and allow retailers from all industries (and not just those who have tied up with Casetrust) to voluntarily opt for a secured payment or performance bond practice. Such scheme can be driven by good business incentives. The Government may even wish to consider incentives such as suitable tax reliefs.

Madam, despite things having become more expensive in Singapore in recent years, Singapore still has reputation as a shoppers’ paradise, which saw investors pour S$10 billion into retail developments here in the past 5 years[1]. We must continue to maintain our reputation as a major retail centre in the world and to do this, we must continue to improve our consumer protection laws in a fair and responsible manner.

[1] Straits Times, ‘Shoppers’ paradise lost? Singapore malls suffer as locals, tourists curb spending’, 6 June 2016