The ongoing saga surrounding "errant retailer" Mobile Air has raised several concerns about the state of law and order in Singapore.
Reports began to surface about dubious business practices at the Sim Lim Square store late last month. The incidents prompted a tremendous public outcry that has resulted in a police investigation, a proposal to give more "teeth" to consumer protection laws, a crackdown on other errant retailers and a dose of vigilante justice that ultimately forced Mobile Air to shut down.
The response from Singaporeans was swift. Gabriel Kang, the concerned citizen who turned to social media to rally help for tourist Pham Van Thoai, was able to raise over $15,000 from more than 1,600 donors in just over a day.
Blame fell quickly on the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), a not-for-profit organisation that protects consumer interests by, among other things, promoting fair and ethical business practices.
The public was understandably disappointed. It's not as though the kind of errant behaviour exhibited by Mobile Air owner Jover Chew and his cohorts was something new, yet it seemed unable, or perhaps unwilling, to resolve the issue.
The truth is a little more complicated. Case, as a non-governmental organisation, has very few powers to compel rogue businesses to adopt ethical practices.
Though clearly unethical, the Mobile Air scam is not necessarily illegal, so the police also have few options to clamp down on such businesses until it is proven that individuals are guilty of a crime.
The Sim Lim Square management cannot evict tenants, or force individual landlords to blacklist unethical businesses.
And the landlords? What incentive do they have to be more stringent about whom they collect rent from?
It could be argued that of all the methods used to get Mobile Air to abandon its unfair practices - from the Voluntary Compliance Agreements to the injunctions, the notices of complaints and now the police investigation - the most effective resolution to the situation was provided by parody site SMRT Feedback Ltd.
It was a simple but brutal solution. In an interview with Yahoo, the people behind the website said: "…we provide a platform to publish publicly available information. What people do with the information is none of our concern."
With a little bit of research, and using the power of the social media, they put the power to become judge, jury and executioner in our hands. With that power, even the smallest and weakest of us could now bully the bully from the safety of anonymity. By their own admission, SMRT Feedback Ltd, in one of their posts, said that the law basically did nothing, and followed that up ominously with "we are the law".
We the people, we are the law.
To be honest, it felt like justice to me too. But is it really justice?
Because the emotional and financial damage caused by Jover Chew was perceived to be so grave, many of us lauded SMRT Feedback Ltd for bypassing due process and putting the power to execute justice in our hands. But what is often not seen is the kind of people we are becoming by glorifying such actions.
This time, it was only phone harassment, but the next time we do this, someone out there might be so angry that he or she physically harms the offender or worse, innocent family members or bystanders. Unlike our legal system, there are no protections, no checks and balances.
Our unhappiness with certain aspects of the state of affairs in Singapore has made it easy for popular platforms to manipulate our emotions. We have lost faith in the authorities that govern us, and therefore all the systems are incompetent. We cannot trust our systems to act fairly and in a timely manner, and therefore we must take matters into our own hands.
The fine struggle behind having laws in the first place is always between keeping order in civil society and preventing law enforcers from using the law to their own advantage.
Due process is what keeps a society functioning. It ensures that guilt has to be conclusively proven before punishment is meted out, and if one thinks about that, it is what protects us as citizens as well.
The process of the law works, simply, like this: complaint, followed by thorough investigation, followed by a charge, followed by the right to defend oneself in open court, followed by a judgment.
Yes, Jover Chew and others like him are despicable on many levels, and perhaps this time, the vigilantes got the right person, and levied a just punishment. The delivery companies and others who were inconvenienced, or even financially short-changed by our system of justice? Well, that's just collateral damage.
But what if the next time, an innocent person is accused of a grievous wrong, and "evidence" by way of social media condemns the person before he had a chance to defend himself? What if that person is punished by a group of anonymous vigilantes whom no one can hold accountable and who is accountable to no one?
What if that person is you? Is that the kind of society we want to live in?
Even people like Jover Chew deserve due process.
But it's really not about him. It is about us. It is about whether we desire to live in a fair, just and gracious society.
How many prank calls did it take to shut down Mobile Air? How many people were responsible for terrorising Jover Chew into hiding?
It's hard to say for certain, but I suspect it's not nearly as many as the 1,600 good Samaritans who helped Gabriel Kang's tremendous project to offer relief to the victims of Mobile Air's scams.
The growing appeal of vigilantism is a symptom of our growing frustration, but we cannot allow a few individuals to push us towards a lawless society.
It is also imperative that those with authority and responsibility for law and order show that they are not impotent. If we don't want frustrated citizens falling blindly behind the anonymous rabble-rousers, we have to quickly close the legal loopholes that allow rogue businesses to continue operating, and regain the public trust.
The writer is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.
Background story: Due process is what keeps a society functioning. It ensures that guilt has to be conclusively proven before punishment is meted out, and if one thinks about that, it is what protects us as citizens as well.
This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.