'This is extortion'

Selling like hot cakes: This kiosk at Yishun MRT station sold N95 masks for $10 each. A 24-year-old man who had approached the kiosk with his girlfriend calls it extortion, and refuses to buy any. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen notes that the grossly inflated prices and "artificial shortages" have been triggered by panic buying, and reassures Singaporeans that there will be enough supplies stocked up at FairPrice and healthcare retail stores.

SINGAPORE - The search for the elusive N95 face mask continued yesterday, as prices shot up even higher in outlets that still had stocks.

The more desperate ones scoured island-wide for the masks but some refused to succumb to what they saw as extortion.

This is how one man described it when he was asked to pay $10 for a mask.

He and his girlfriend were seen approaching a kiosk at Yishun MRT station which had some N95 masks on display.

When they were told that each mask costs $10, the girlfriend, who wanted to be known only as Danielle, 22, took out her money, but he stopped her.

Grabbing her hand before she could hand over the cash, he said: "This is clearly extortion. Don't buy, don't buy."

The man, who wanted to be known only as Kenneth, 24, told The New Paper: "I won't buy it because I know that's not what a mask is supposed to cost. It's unjustifiable and outrageous."

As the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached a new high of 401 at noon yesterday, more people are looking to exploit the situation by charging exorbitant prices for the N95 masks.

The $10 price at the Yishun kiosk is about four times higher than the recommended retail price of $1.80 to $2.50 a piece set by 3M for its N95s. When approached, the people manning the kiosk declined to comment.

But the high price did not deter some desperate buyers. A mother in her mid 30s bought two masks from the kiosk.

Madam Tracy Lim, who was with her two young daughters, said: "It's expensive, but I really have no choice. I have to protect my children. I really couldn't get any masks at places like Guardian (pharmacy). This is the only option."

Another woman, who wanted to be known only as Nora, 23, bought a mask from the kiosk as well.

"My mother has been asking me to get one for her as she works outdoors and is exposed to the haze," she said.

"I looked for it till I found it here, so I will definitely buy it despite the price. I started looking in Toa Payoh, and headed here when all the shops I visited there were out of masks."

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday that the "artificial shortage" was caused by panic-buying. He said that one million masks would be given free to lower-income households while more masks would be made available to retail outlets starting with NTUC FairPrice. (See report on Page 4.)

Higher in a day

Checks by TNP showed that prices yesterday were generally higher than the day before.

Whereas most places were selling a box of 20 for below $50 on Thursday, the price had shot past $60 yesterday.

A shop in Parkway Parade, 1st Prize Trading, was selling a box of 20 masks at $85, or $4.25 a mask.

When asked about this, a salesperson said it was because the supplier had increased the price. He declined to name the supplier or reveal how much they bought the masks for.

But not everyone was cashing in on the demand. A seller in Toa Payoh, who requested not to be named, was selling boxes of 10 N95 masks at $20 each.

The 55-year-old woman said the masks were meant mainly for regulars, but she sold some to those who were in desperate need.

"I will not sell to resellers. At the very most, I will sell only one or two boxes to those who really need it," she said.

Asked how she felt about resellers who inflate prices, she condemned them as selfish and inconsiderate.

"Those selfish people just want to make money, and that should not be the way. They take advantage of people who really need the masks like those with asthma or those who have to work outdoors a lot."

AMK Global Distribution, at Block 4008 in Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park, sold masks below the recommended price in boxes of 20 at $27 each, with a limit of two boxes per customer. Its staff declined to comment.

There was a long queue there, but most customers got their masks within half an hour.

Mr Matthew Tay, 35, a procurement manager, who had taken half a day off work, bought two boxes

He said: "My wife went to NTUC, Unity, but they were all sold out. Yesterday we wanted to get air purifiers but they were sold out at every department store I went to."

Asked why he was so desperate for the items, he said: "I have a 14-month-old boy. The masks are more for myself and my wife.

"I'm still hoping to get an air purifier for my son because it's difficult to get him to wear a mask at his age."

The Consumers Association of Singapore president Lim Biow Chuan, yesterday urged suppliers and retailers to be transparent and abide by the recommended retail prices.

"They should not take advantage of the plight of consumers and inflate prices in this critical period," he said.

"Consumers should also be wary of retailers taking advantage of the situation to sell face masks at unreasonable prices."