When authorities tarry, netizens harry

When authorities tarry, netizens harry
Mobile Air in Sim Lim Square and its owner, Mr Jover Chew, became notorious for unfair trade practices, including coercing mobile phone customers to buy inhouse warranties at inflated prices.

Many of you might have read about how Mobile Air owner Jover Chew diverted calls from his mobile phone to a reporter from The New Paper on Wednesday.

I am that reporter.

I received 201 phone calls in five hours.

Netizens felt the authorities were not doing enough about rogue traders at Sim Lim Square and took their own form of citizen justice on Mr Chew, who has become the face of the "Sim Lim saga".

A fortnight ago, travel company Lonely Planet named us the top country to visit in 2015, but merchants like Mr Chew have sullied our international reputation in a number of incidents involving tourists.

The latest, which drew the most outrage, was when Vietnamese tourist Pham Van Thoai tearfully knelt down and begged staff at Mobile Air for a $950 refund after he was allegedly "tricked" into signing a contract which required him to pay another $1,500 for an in-house warranty for the phone.

In a video clip of the incident, the shop staff could be heard laughing and making fun of the man.

The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry has put out an advisory reminding those buying electronic items in Singapore to beware. Vietnamese newspapers have also made a similar call after Mr Pham's incident.

On travel website Trip Advisor, 139 out of 246 reviewers call Sim Lim Square "terrible".

The Consumers Association of Singapore have said they are taking action against Mobile Air, but how much can signing a Voluntary Compliance Agreement to stop unfair practices help?

But now that the issue has also been raised in Parliament, it is likely the authorities will finally do something about these errant retailers.

For this, perhaps we should thank Mr Chew for refunding $1,010 to a customer in coins after she went to the Small Claims Tribunal. This made headline news and threw the rogue traders of Sim Lim Square into the spotlight.

Then Mr Chew had the temerity to call the media to give his side of the story.

When I interviewed him, Mr Chew didn't seem sorry or embarrassed by what he did. He gave the impression that he had not done anything wrong and even painted himself to be a victim of sorts, his shop's reputation suffering as a result of overly demanding customers.

Perhaps he was smug because he knew that even with the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act, no one could touch him.

The authorities need to be seen doing something about such unethical merchants. If not, Internet vigilantes will step in.

In the case of Mr Chew, satirical group SMRT Ltd (Feedback) posted his personal details on its Facebook page, asking fans to call him.

This was how I ended up receiving all their calls when Mr Chew diverted them to my phone. It was awful.

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin posted on his Facebook page yesterday that while some of these shops' practices might not run afoul of the law, they "assault our sensibilities".

What is clear is the need for stricter and more wide-ranging laws to protect consumers.

This has to go beyond forcing rogue traders to shut down their shops. If not, they have the option of starting another one with a different name, as many dodgy Sim Lim Square merchants are wont to do.

Share your views with Elizabeth at lawsm@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Nov 7, 2014.
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