Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) (Amendment) Bill [Bill No. 25/2016]
Madam I stand in support of this Bill which essentially is a Bill about trust and about leveling the playing field in the marketplace.
While Singapore strives to be a business-friendly hub for companies, we must also ensure that justice prevails in the marketplace, where no party is able to take advantage of another.
Betrayal of trust
I’m sure many of us recall the amount of public anger stirred up in 2014 by the high-profile cases of errant companies at Sim Lim Square. That year, Jover Chew become a public enemy. Citizen vigilantes took over social media to reveal his identity. A crowdfunding campaign was set up to compensate the victim, and money continued to pour in until it raised 12 times the targeted amount. This was a display of collective public action in Singapore, an angry society stirred up by a clear case of a bully taking advantage of another person.
A year later, we saw BreadTalk’s soya milk saga. Once again, Singaporeans were up in arms.
Madam, it is clear that the public does not tolerate a betrayal of the trust they hold towards companies. When a customer is made to pay more than he or she agreed to, or when a product is misrepresented, it is a form of injustice which hits the raw nerves of Singaporeans.
In this regard, I stand in full support of this bill to strengthen our laws to better protect consumers. However, I would like to raise a few concerns.
Ensuring the consumers understand the Bill
Firstly, to help consumers understand the additional protection they are conferred under this Bill, will the Ministry be releasing publicity materials?
I note that after the Lemon Laws were enacted in 2012, CASE had published accessible public awareness materials to educate consumers about their rights.
In the same way, we need education for consumers to reap the full benefits of this proposed law. For example, it would be useful to reiterate the acts listed out in the Second Schedule, specifying what constitutes unfair practice.
We could also explain what an ‘injunction’ means in laymen terms and to educate consumers to stay clear from deals which seem too good to be true.
If this is not feasible as a nation-wide campaign, then I would recommend at least, for the government to pay special attention to the hotspots where numerous complaints have been received.
Protecting our tourists and foreign workers
Secondly, foreign workers and tourists seem to be target groups for errant companies. In 2014, Vietnamese and Chinese media picked up on these scams targeting foreign nationals, tainting Singapore’s image as a trustworthy, tourist-friendly shopping hub.
Can the Minister share what else is being done to protect this vulnerable group, as well as steps to assure prospective tourists that Singapore remains a safe shopping haven?
Legislation cannot be the end goal
Lastly, most people I’ve spoken to about this Bill simply labels it as a Bill that will give us a peace of mind when we shop.
Madam, in the beginning of my speech, I said this is a Bill about trust. But it really is a Bill about trust lost in our society.
Ultimately, we are strengthening legislation to strengthen trust in our society. While I support this Bill, I hope this is not the end goal.
As I frequently mention in my speeches, legislation cannot be the end goal. We cannot legislate everything and we cannot depend solely on legislation and enforcement of legislation for the moral progress of our nation.
We have been called a “fine city” and I’m afaid there is some truth in this label. When I speak to primary schools kids and ask them why they should not litter, almost every reply is that you cannot litter as you will get a fine or must “pay money if you get caught”.
These replies depress me to be honest. It is a sign that we have become over-reliant on laws. I wish the replies were we shouldn’t litter because it might harm the environment, it might pollute the ecosystem, it might make it unpleasant for others or we shouldn’t litter as someone else has to pick up the litter.
I appreciate that I sound idealistic but where are we heading as a society if everything we do or don’t do is because there is a fine or penalty attached to it? It does seem like we are doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
Fundamentally, we should have laws but we should not solely and consistently focus on the laws. Moral and values in an ideal world, should not be dicated by laws.
And these can’t be taught in the classroom nor written in textbooks. Children learn by watching and so we as parents need to teach by example. We as parents need to instill the values in our children.
Two quotes sum up what I just said. The first and I quote “Children close their ears to advice but open their eyes to example”. The second and I quote “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach”.
Ultimately, we cannot just depend on legislation or depend on schools to strengthen trust and reduce cheating.
A society where trust is the norm
A high level of trust is indicative of an integrated, resilient and cohesive society – one which will require less government intervention and fewer laws. This may sound like a fantastical utopia, and I a foolish idealist, but I have personally encountered such a society.
In July 2012, I was in the Solomon Islands and I shared my expereince in a Facebook post more than 4 years ago.
I wrote: “The people here also show a level of trust I seldom see. We had dinner in a restaurant on the first night. We didn’t have enough cash and their credit card machine was not working. The owner said “never mind, pay me another time!” We went back the next night and we still didn’t have enough local currency and the credit card machine was still not working and the owner said “never mind just eat first and pay me another time!!” We were complete strangers and he didn’t ask us for any ID, nothing…”
In the concluding paragrpah of that post, I wrote: “I felt what it is like to live amongst people so genuine, so trusting that I had to pinch myself so many times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
In April this year, Minister Shanmugam spoke about how in Singapore, a 10-year-old child can take public transport alone. There is no doubt we are a safe society and our primary focus should be our physical safety.
But I hope we can not just focus on our physical safety but also focus on our community spirit and continuing to build a society where a higher level of trust exist amongst all of us.
The trust that holds society together like glue cannot, and should not be lost in our search for economic progress. And this trust can only be cultivated by protecting the moral fabric of our society.
These are my high hopes for Singapore – strong moral values which guide our behaviour, without the constant need for government carrots and sticks.
Madam, let me end with a quote which reads “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair”. It is my utmost wish that we will live in a society where trust remains the norm, where the moral frabric of our nation remains strong and where we won’t need to streghten this piece of legislation again in the near future.
Madam, my above comments notwithstanding, I stand in support of the bill.