Consumer Movement in Singapore: Historical Development and Future Perspective



Citation:

Chow Hou Wee and Poh Lin Yeoh (1985) ,"Consumer Movement in Singapore: Historical Development and Future Perspective", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 30-36.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 30-36

CONSUMER MOVEMENT IN SINGAPORE: HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT AND FUTURE PERSPECTIVE

Chow Hou Wee, National University of Singapore

Poh Lin Yeoh, National University of Singapore

ABSTRACT -

This paper reviews the consumer movement in Singapore since the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) was formed in 1971. The various major activities and functions of CASE are discussed, such as consumer information and education, formation of advisory councils, promotion of "desirable" consumption habits, product testing and market research, lobbying for laws in consumer protection, complaint handling, and regional role in consumer movement. The paper concludes with a discussion of the future roles of CASE.

INTRODUCTION

The tremendous upsurge in consumer matters in the latter half of the twentieth century can be explained by the Molony Committee Report in 1962 which reported, (The last half century) ... has seen a growing tendency for manufacturers ... to appeal direct ly to the public by forceful advertising and other promotional methods ... a further influence during the same period has been the development of a mass market for extremely complex mechanical and electric goods ... Their performance cannot in some cases be accurately established by a short trial ; shortcomings of design are not apparent to the inexpert eye; inherent faults may only come to light when the article breaks down after a period of use.'' (Borrie and Diamond, 1964, p.10) (1).

Thus the idea of consumer sovereignty, that is , the consumer is king in a free market enterprise is not quite as simple or straightforward as the classic economic models of marketing assume. Our buying behavior has been directly and subtly influenced by the techniques and knowledge behavioral scientists have covered about the rationality (or irrationality) of consumer behavior. But as long as there still exists differences between the performance and information needs, antagonism with the advertisements, disillusionment with the system, unresponsive and impersonal market institutions - the presence of disadvantaged consumers means that the consumer movement is here to stay.

CONSUMER MOVEMENT IN SINGAPORE

In developing countries like Singapore, the need for consumer protection Was also recognized with the formation of the Consumer Association (if Singapore (CASE) in 1971 (2).CASE was established at a time when there was a public out-cry against the increasing abuse of the hire-purchase practice, the spiraling pork prices and the proposed increases of prices of bread. It was set up with the cooperation and backing of the trade union sector as an independent, nonpolitical and non-profit organization in response to the need to protect the rights and interests of the consumers.

CASE started with a total of 50,854 members. Today the membership numbers have increased to 270,289 members, including 53 institutional members (most of whom are the major affiliated unions of the National Trade Union Congress)(3). Table I shows the detailed breakdown of its membership and its growth over the years.

TABLE 1

MAJOR ROLES OF CASE

As Singapore's wage earners become more affluent and the pattern of spending becomes more consumption oriented, the role of CASE has correspondingly increase over the years. Today, CASE's major functions include distributing consumer information; fostering consumer education; carrying out investigations and tests on matters affecting consumers; publishing consumer information; providing consumers with greater protection aga-inst malpractices in the marketplace; improving standards of safety, quality and performance of consumer products; improving the availability of consumer products between which consumers may make a reasonable choice; and improving the quality of product information to ensure that consumers are able to make an informed choice.

Consumer Information and Education

CASE has always been aware of the close links between consumers arid education. Consumer information and education are widely disseminated through CASE's publications and the local media. The first publication of CASE, "CASE Report'', appeared in November 1971. It provided CASE with a regular Outlet of information, advice and viewpoints on all matters affecting the consumer' s interest. In September 1972, t. lie "Consumer Bulletin'' emerged as a continuation of the ''CASE Report". As the publication before it, the ''Consumer Bulletin'' main objective is to provide unbiased and technically-based guidance on the ever increasing variety of goods and services available to the consumers. included in each monthly issue of the ''Consumer bulletin'' are test reports comparing the performance, quality and value of the goods and services under study. Besides Lest and user survey reports, ''Consumer Bulletin'' also includes research reported oil a wide range of consumer goods and services as well as current consumer problems and concerns.

Books and pamphlets have also been printed periodically for public consumption. ''Hire Purchase and You", ''A Guide to Consumer Protection'', "The Code of Advertising Practice'', "Guide to The Pawn Brokers ' Act'', "Contact Lens Handbook'' were published to aid consumers on their rights.

CASE has not neglected the young in its pursuits. In early 1985, CASE educational produced a four-page bulletin entitled ''OUR TALK" to inform and educate children oil consumerism. Modeled after "KIDS' CHOICE", a publication of the Australian Consumers' Association, the quarterly bulletin focuses on current issues such as energy conservation, safety, food, drinks and other issues affecting children like the use of pocket money, toys, clothes, stationery. With the support of school principals and teachers, it is envisaged that the articles in the bulletin would be used to stimulate and focus discussion of consumer issues in the classroom.

The mass media has played a significant role in disseminating consumer information and education in Singapore. Publicity given to CASE has made many people increasingly more aware of themselves as consumers. CASE is kept in constant contact with the news media which sought its views and opinions on a diversity of consumer issues and concerns. by means of press releases, interviews and press conferences, CASE has managed to maintain a regular flow of consume r education and information to the general public through this medium.

Formation of Advisory Councils

CASE was instrumental and actively involved in the formation of Advisory Councils like the Singapore Breastfeeding Mothers' group (SBMG), the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS ) , the Toy Safety Authority of Singapore (TSAS) and tire 'Milk for Children Advisory Council (MCAC) to advise and protect consumers.

The Singapore Breastfeeding Mothers' Group was established in 1975 to promote breast-feeding among mothers in Singapore. The aims of SBMG are two-fold:

- to give encouragement and moral support to mothers who wish to breastfeed their babies;

- to build up the awareness of the community to the importance of human milk, and the need for Community Support for the nursing mother.

The SBMG has been providing counselling services, both individually and in groups. Members also liaise with the medical, health and educational authorities and regular talks are conducted at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. Through file years of corresponding with similar organizations, tile SBMG has built an extensive library for easy information excess to its members. Members of the Group also participated at a breastfeeding workshop conducted by Mr Denny Van Esturik of Cornell University, and the programme coordinator presented the Group at the Asian Regional Seminar f o r the Promotion of Breast feeding (Manila 30 September - 30 October, 1982).

The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore was set up in 1976 with these objectives in mind:

-to promote and regulate the highest ethical standards of advertising in all aspects thereof so as to ensure with the cooperation of all concerned and / or through the legislative sanction of the government that no advertiser or advertisement contravenes or offends these Standards and that no consumer is wilfully misled by any advertisement;

-to codify the highest ethical standards of advertising obtainable in Singapore into a Singapore Code of Advertising Practices having regard, inter alia, to the prevailing standards and to publish, print, distribute or sell books, journals, pamphlets, bulletins, newsletters arid conduct courses for the guidance of advertisers and Lhe protection of consumers;

-to provide assistance and advice to advertisers and consumers in the observance and enforcement of the Singapore Code of Advertising Practices as approached from time to time and at any Lime by ASAS.

Consumers need business and vice-versa, so the formation of ASAS would be of benefit to both the business and consumers when both subject themselves to the same rules. The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, adopted and administered by ASAS is a fundamental part of the system of control by which Singapore advertising regulates its activities. These rules, furthermore, torn) the basis of arbitration when there is a conflict of interest within the business, or between advertisers and consumers.

The toy Safety Authority of Singapore was set up in 1982 to:

-promote and regulate in Singapore the highest Standards of safety in the import export, manufacture and retail of children's toys;

-codify the highest standard of toy Safety obtainable in Singapore;

-provide assistance and advice to importers, exporters, manufacturers, retailers and consumers in the observance and enforcement of the Singapore Code of Toy Safety.

Since its formation, TSAS has promoted the toy safety concept through the toy safety exhibitions in 1982 and 1983, and quizzes and a postal competition among school children. Toy safety articles, materials, product tests, eLcl are regularly disseminated to the consumer public for their information, and protection. TSAS also organized a seminar entitled "Toy Safety: Whose Responsibility" on 21 January 1984.

Lastly to promote more milk drinking among pre and primary school children, the Milk for Children Advisory Council was established in December 1982. Present representation on the MCAC are CASE, Institute of Dental Health, Ministries of Education and Environment, National University of Singapore, People's Association, Tetra Pak Pacific, Beatrice Foods Singapore, Cold Storage Manufacturing and Malayan Diary.

Promotion of "Desirable" Consumption Habits

Unlike consumer movement in the western world, CASE is also actively engaged in propagating Lite social objectives of the government. Two major projects undertaken by CASE - Lite promotion of consumption of Thai 100% rice and the promotion of generic products - deserve special mention.

The rationale for the promotion of the consumption of Thai 100% rice was the possible savings that could be derived by the individual and the nation. Un an individual basis, savings could be negligible, approximately fifty cents per kg. However, at the national level, it could amount to $23.5m if the majority of Lite consumers switched from pricer grades of rice to Thai 100%. Most consumers have the misconception that fragrant rice is better in quality than Thai 100%. However, studies have shown that there is no difference between the two in both nutrition and taste.

Thus, in December 1983, a one-week publicity drive was launched to promote Lite consumption of Thai 100%. The pattern of rice consumption altered significantly. The consumption of Thai 100% rose by 17% while that of fragrant rice fell to 28%. A survey to examine the rice consumption habits of adult late March 1984.   Singaporeans was conducted in Further publicity activities a re being planned to create greater awareness among consumers on the issue.

CASE has been encouraging the retail of generic products for the benefit of consumers. The reason being that substantial cost savings for retailers could be derived and this could be passed on to the consumers in the form of lower prices of 10 to 60 per cent. Substantial savings for the retailers are possible because:

-Common packaging colours would be used by all retailers. CASE would promote the generics in these colours on their behalf and no advertising costs would be incurred by the retailers;

-Packaging would be simple with two standardized colours and only carry the essential information.

The project has been strongly supported by the Ministry of Trade and Industry ( MT I ) who is interested in lowering household expenditure and achieve a lower CPI (Consumer Price Index). Generic products have been introduced with some success in many parts of the world; UK, USA, Australia and West Germany. In Sweden, it has been particularly successful.

CASE plans to have true generics retailed in a categorized section at outlets. Common sourcing 'Would be introduced for a selected range of generics. Each retailer would make the initial contacts and arrangements for sourcing of a product for the other retailers in the scheme. The range of products could be restricted to a few and gradually be extended. In August 1984, CASE held a press conference at the 'Ministry of Trade & Industry to promote house brands and generics. Further discussions between CASE, MTI, Singapore Retail Merchants Association (SKMA) and the retailers are underway to implement plans.

Very recently (June 1985), CA~,E has also stat-ed its open support for parallel imports. In public announcement, it stated the reasons and rationale for granting such support.

Product Testing and Market Research

CASE also conducted tests and market research on selected categories of products. So tar, conducted comparative product tests and price surveys on products such as LPG cylinders, life insurance, cosmetics, food processors, full cream powdered milk, disposable diapers, cooking oil, cameras, credit cards, energy drinks, part time courses in commercial schools, hire purchase on motor vehicles, chewing gum, ball pens, condoms and toiletries.

Some of the recent activities undertaken by CASE were as follows;

- In mid 1983, CASE bought several brands of scented erasers for testing by the Department of Scientific Studies after being alerted about erasers having high lead content. The Lest results confirmed CASE suspicions. The public was alerted and forewarned of t fie harm these erasers could cause unsuspecting youngsters.

- In September 1983, nine brands of chewing gums were sent for analysis to determine the sugar content and the amount of additives. The results indicated that the total sugar content can vary up to 67%. No preservatives arid artificial sweeteners were detected, however artificial colouring matter was used. CASE then made a call for the voluntarily withdrawal of the sale of chewing gum at retail outlets.

-In order to examine the interpretation of the agreement between Video Libraries and consumers, CASE Research Department began acquiring information in 1964, to enable consumers to choose the Video Library they wish to patronize by comparing prices.

Quarterly supermarket

price surveys started in December 1983. From the readership survey conducted in May 1984, it was noted that price surveys are t fie most popular among consumers. Information on new products and buying Lips were also popular. These f indings are published regularly in the Consumer Bulletin.

Lobbying Legislation for Consumer Protection

In Singapore, the responsibility for implementing consumer protection functions is shared by various ministries and statutory boards. of tile numerous consumer protection legislations to promote and protect the interests of all consumers, the most important ones are the Sale of Food Act of 1975 and the Food Regulation of 1974, the Weights and Measures Act, 1975 and the Consumer Protect ion Act , 1975. Of Singapore Government institutions, the Department of Trade is mainly responsible for the protection of consumers. Some of the statutory boards that are responsible for protecting the consumers to some extent. are t lie Public Utility Board (regulations regarding the safety requirements of electrical appliances) and the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) - (the marking and safety labeling of scheme-products tested to ensure that they conform to accepted safety standards). CASE is tire only non-governmental voluntary consumers' organization that serves to protect and promote the interest of all consumers.

Since 1974, CASE has been lobbying for the setting of a Small Claims Tribunal. On 24 August 1984, the Small Claims Tribunal Act was passed by Parliament and on I February 1985, the Small Claims Court was established. This Act which makes provision for the establishment of Small Claims Tribunals in Singapore will serve to provide a simple, inexpensive and informal forum for the settlement of grievances by both consumers and traders. The Tribunal has jurisdiction to hear any claims arising from any contract for the sale of goods or the provision of services not exceeding $2,000.

The setting up of such a Small Claims Tribunal in Singapore will help to remove from Consumers the uncertainty of legal costs as all claims lodged with the Tribunal must be presented by the parties themselves. The preclusion of lawyers from appearing in the Tribunal will also help to place the "small" consumers on a more equal footing with the Suppliers Of goods and services. With the existence of the Tribunal, it is hoped that consumers will be less helpless and apathetic towards complaining. In turn, recalcitrant traders and manufacturers who know that. consumers can resort to the Tribunal will become more responsive to consumer complaints, thereby Strengthening CASE's role as a concilatory body. Since its inception, the Tribunal has successfully settled 141Claims , an assuring sign that consumers are becoming to be more aware of their rights and the existence of consumer protection laws in Singapore.

Complaint Handling

One of the inevitable functions of any consumer movement organization is the handling of consumer Complaints, and CASE is no exception.

In 1972, when the Complaints Bureau was first set up, 64 official written complaints were recorded and the three main categories were:

- The rising cost of certain essential goods;

- Overcharging of electrical appliances;

- Malpractices and profiteering.

But over the years, with changes in technology and consumer tastes, the number (including refunds in cash), and category of complaints have expanded considerably (see Tables 2 and 3).

Looking at Table 2, it can be noted that electrical appliances continued to be the major items of complaint. The nature of complaints were mainly faulty appliances, violation of sales contract and poor after-sales service. Warranties, although a substantial source of protection to the consumers, brought about many complaints due to the indifference to conditions in them and the failure of consumers to demand for warranties when buying electrical and electronic products. Due to the spiralinh increase in malpractices in the electrical trade, CASE is currently endeavouring to effect the setting up of an Advisory Council to promote and regulate the conduct of ethical business in trade.

TABLE 2

BREAKDOWN OF CONSUMER COMPLAINTS .(1980 - 1984)

Since 1964, complaints against renovation contractors has escalated tremendously . Breach of contract, delay in getting the work completed, shoddy workmanship and inferior materials are the main areas of discontent.

The major areas of tourist complaints were overcharging, non-delivery of goods and poor quality goods . CASE works closely with tire Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to ensure that the reputation of the Republic for fair business is not tarnished by retailers who unscrupulously set out to take advantage of unwary tourists. CASL is represented on the STPB Complaints Committee and the STPB Task-Force Sub-Committee.

There was also a notable increase in the number of complaints about furniture arid furnishings. Many grievances arose from inferior quality, poor workmanship and the non-delivery of items, despite deposits being placed in advance. As consumers generally know little about furniture quality and design, they often end up without getting value-for-money for their purchases. CASE has called for collective effect-on the part of- furniture dealers to rid Ll,.e market of dishonest retailers to ensure high standards in tire trade .

In the Motor Vehicles category, poor workmanship service and exorbitant charges in repair costs formed the chief grounds of complaints. Misrepresentation of the overall condition of second-hand cars was also responsible for many grievances. It was found that many complaints originated when consumers, after buying a vehicle, arranged for an independent report which revealed faults.

During 1964, approximately 793 out of the 978 complaints received were found valid and therefore redress was Sought on behalf of the complainants. Naturally, the Kind of redress obtained depended very much oil the specific features of each individual complaint, but in general the following forms of redress were sought:

-Part refund in cases of overcharging;

-Refund, exchange or repair in cases of unacceptable quality;

-Delivery of goods or refund in cases of late delivery;

-Refund or further servicing in cases of unsatisfactory service.

The rest of the complaints (20%) were either impossible to substantiate due to the lack of proof or too vague for action to be taken. Table 3 shows the amount of refunds ill Cash paid to consumers from 1980 to 1984.

TABLE 3

REFUNDS IN CASH

Regional Role in Consumer Movement

To celebrate the coming of age of the consumer movement in Asia and the Pacific and also to provide a larger understanding and consciousness amongst the consumer leaders around this region, Singapore played host to the first International Organization of Consumer Unions (IOCU) Seminar in Community Education for Consumer Protection (4-8 Feb 1974) to more than hundred participants. One of the most important decisions to emerge out of the workshop sessions was that of locating, a regional centre which could act as a clearing house for information and research for consumer groups in the region - and Singapore was unanimously voted the regional centre.

Other seminars had. been held in Singapore were:

-Second Asean Consumer Protection Seminar (18-21 May 1983);

-Productivity and the Consumer Seminar (19 Nov 1983);

-Seminar on ''Self Regulation of Advertising: Options for Development (10 Dec 1983);

The first two seminars were jointly organized by IOCU, the Regional Office of Asia and CASE. the ASEAN countries, it is generally felt t hat consumer protection should be built into the development plans by establishing among ASEAN government and consumer organizations an ASEAN Consumer Protection Agency to be served by an ASEAN Consumer Protection Secretariat. 'The feasibility at setting up an ASEAN Law Workshop was also looked into.

FUTURE ROLES OF CASE

Amongst the various efforts (as menttoned above ) undertaken by CASE, consumer information and education will remain the two most important areas of concentration as they are the most effective means to counter the unscrupulous designs and inimitable malpractices of manufacturers and retailers alike.

Consumer education is a life-long education to contribute to basic survival needs of all age groups. But among the disadvantaged consumers, the groups particularly vulnerable to the economic and social inequalities are the low-income earners; the unemployed; the physically and mentally handicapped; the immigrant worker; the old and particularly the very old;- and tile social and cultural minority.

[low can CASE mobilize consumers into action to faster greater consumer interests? First of all, it is essential to identify the target audience for consumer education to list out the priorities and to plan and formulate consumer education to suit their needs. in other words, a segmented rather than a mass approach may be needed in the future. Secondly, steps need to be taken to disseminate consumer education through the formal and non-formal Systems. In the formal system, the school has a great potential for consumer education:

-by incorporating consumer education within the existing school curriculum;

-through extra-curricular activities by

Setting up consumer clubs or societies.

The non-formal systems offers many opportunities for consumer education, for those who nad little or no exposure to formal education:

- by integrating consumer education (like information dissemination) within the established activities of institutionalized mechanisms, such as women's associations, youth associations, the People's Association and community centres;

-by developing consumer education programmes through the media giving the highest priority to those in the lower income groups.

Aside from the formal and non-formal systems of education, citizen's groups such as Housing Board Residents' Committees can facilitate consumer education for consumer action. CASE, for example, can direct its efforts to the consumers in several ways:

-support community organizations and other organized grassroot groups in an attempt to work out educational arrangements on people's terms;

-hold seminars and workshops for educators, professionals, grassroot workers and community leaders;

-act as resource people in developing media programmes for consumers in tile formal arid non-formal systems;

-plan and prepare educational materials for use by the different formal arid non-formal groups.

The Complaints Department was set up in 1972 to help consumers seek redress f rom dishonest dealers, expose undesirable trade practices and advise consumers on flow to improve their purchasing techniques. Ali analysis of tile data on complaints received at CASE over a f ive year period from 1980 to 1984 indicated that there has been a substantial increase in the number of complainants but the majority of these complaints belong to the middle income and higher income groups. These complainants also tended to possess at least a tertiary education. Thus, in seeking ways and means to heighten consumer awareness and his social responsibilities in helping to build a better consumer environment, consideration must be given to the vastly different economic-social background of all consumers and CASE has to improve in this particularly aspect. It should be a movement for the ordinary man in tile street, and not a complaint bureau for the educated and rich. With regard to this, CASE's plan to set up a Consumer Product Information Centre in the near future is a very welcomed move. Envisaged as a first step towards the setting up of consumer advice centres like those found in Australia, Europe and other countries, the centre will provide information on product features, recommended retail prices, retail outlets and any relevant comparative product tests chat have been conducted. Such information, will then be updated through regular market surveys. In operationalizing the work of this centre, CASE should ensure that its services are well publicized.

Related to complaint handling , CASE should attempt to improve its quality and methodology of its data collection and market research activities. For example, although CASE keeps records of complaints by consumers, the data are in very ''crude'' and elementary form -- little information is available on the complaining consumer. In addition, nothing is known about tile non-complaining consumer who is dissatisfied with his purchase. Thus research on understanding postpurchase behavior is badly needed in order that the consumer can be better protected. Perhaps CASE should embark on joint research activities with faculty members at tile University, including sponsoring and funding research on areas pertaining to the Consumer.

CASE should also attempt to bring its movement to the masses by increasing active ordinary membership. Currently, the bulk of its membership is through the institutions, and largely, union members (see Table I). The ordinary membership, in fact, dropped in 1984. The consumer movement will only be a recognizable force if its ordinary members play a more assertive role.

Finally, CASE should also attempt to rationalize its various roles and activities in the future in order not to jeopardize its credibility. Two actions by CASE, for example, can be viewed as biased efforts -- the promotion of generic products and the open encouragement and endorsement of parallel importers. it gives the impression that CASE is favouring a particular sector of business over others. In addition, the support for generic products and parallel imports also appear to be paradoxical in that such products tend to have greater problems in quality, aftersales service, and other product-related attributes. It is also generally harder to pin-point responsibility on the seller/manutacturer if the products do not meet the expectations of the consumer. These are situations and practices that CASE should be eradicating'.

CONCLUSION

In the fourteen years under review, CASE has continued to progress steadily in its services expansion to meet the increasing demands from the public of Singapore, while at the same time, consolidating and strengthening many of its activities in consumer issues and consumer protection. For the future, CASE has to continue to project to the public that it is a highly reputable, responsible and authoritative body for providing consumer services and for upholding consumer services. Like many non-profit organizations dedicated to the improvement of the quality of life, the future of CASE depends not only on the selfless commitment of its staff but the public also has a crucial role to play i-n that consumers have to be more involved and supportive of CASE's activities.

In conclusion, is there not a case for the consumer to act now to exercise his rights ........ and be more aware of what is happening around him?

REFERENCES

(1) Gordon Borrie & Audrey L Diamond: The Cons umers, Society and Law, 1977.

(2) Consumers' Association of Singapore: Annual Report, 1972.

(3) Commemoratum of Case's 13th Anniversary Conjunction with Singapore's 25 years Nation-Building, 28th September 1984.

----------------------------------------

Authors

Chow Hou Wee, National University of Singapore
Poh Lin Yeoh, National University of Singapore



Volume

SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985



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