Friday, October 22, 2010

Singapore on fire

If you think, based on the title, that I am going to write about haze, you are wrong.  I am referring to the mess some of the industries are, especially those the Government hopes to foster. These are the current industries or perhaps employment in a drama and on fire:
- Financial consultancy
- Property agency
- Private education
- Wellness clinic

The industries are pretty much those that fits into the Government drive for more SMEs. However, typical of people falling into complacency, laziness or perhaps simply ignorance or even worse, gambling mood, there has been a kind of stand where these steps are repeated:
- Sudden emergence of a business

- Noone cares as it looks like providing a good amount of SME
- Noone cares so lack to no regulations are set up
- Booming time, plenty of jobs - some of it goes to the so called immigrants because locals do not want to do it (for example those in wellness clinic)
- Crashing time, plenty of problems

Let's break it down one by one.

Financial businesses are very lucrative. After all, Singapore drives itself hard to be the leading financial hub. What comes with it is the financial consultant, people who are supposedly working hard to help commoners to plan for their finance. However, as the business rules go, profit is the main driver. So the client's interest go to the back, money making comes to the front. So far, does not seem that there is any regulation to put bad financial consultant to task (or even the agency) if they cause a big loss to the client, misrepresent product or even for hard selling. Unless of course, the client is so rich that they can hire lawyer and push it to court! Plenty of insurance product sold under investment linked features add up to the woe because let's face it, we all want to get more for less. So what happen? Plenty of people become one of such consultants, plenty of people including ah pek and ah mah who got burned. Let's recall Lehman brothers. What happen after that? Nothing, practically nothing that would really change the life of the ah pek and ah mah. I bet those financial industries remain banking on people with sweet lips and nothing is in place to ensure their agents know the products upside down and have system to check or audit for things like honesty. Is it so costly to set up 'mystery shopping' kind of thing for a check and balance system? Nothing comes from the Government so far. After all, the drive is for financial hub, profit, profit, profit. They will at most tell you, if you don't want to get burned, don't go in. Again, my fault. Indeed, so every single one of us has to take care of ourselves better. Know what you are going into and oh yeah, make sure everyone in your family is super smart and don't get conned unless you are rich and can get a lawyer to get your money back. *sarcasm intended* ( I simply wish for a better regulations and to make sure those people are responsible for their jobs. I am sure if I am one such consultant, I will not make too much sales per people but I am sure those clients will love me as I will never cheat them. But then again, I prefer honesty. :-) )  

Property agent is another issue. Lots of moonlighting meaning, potential lack of commitment. Plenty of cases to use for example where there is allegation that the agent won't help the client to save or earn few more thousands. Hey, wake up. What will make the agent help you with few thousands since it only translates to few more tens of dollars. Remember, you are paying 1%. Worse, if you are buyer, you are hoping to lower the price so you are hoping to cut the agent's fee? Dream on! What I would probably do next time I buy a house is to say to the agent that I will give him 20-30% of the savings should he succeed in reducing the cost. I hope no one kills me for disturbing the status quo in the industry. Then again, plenty of bad apples in the industry. Plenty of people who see their interest not represented. Even a case where the agent get a client, the client's tenant (for rental that is) not paying and got evicted within 2 months, the agent still pockets the money and small claim tribunal action has to be started. Gee..... where is the honesty? What's the rules anyway? Huh? Got rules meh? Again, where is the governing regulation or even framework for the industry?

Private education is one of the newest problem. Plenty of schools, into thousands. Yes, you read it right, thousands. Small ones of course. SME, remember? Small enterprises. Seems to be so easy to start one. Plenty of people from overseas coming in for education. Hey, the drive is to be another education hub. Heck care of the start. No strict regulations. Just register with Ministry of Education, get a CASE (Consumer Association of Singapore) and then run your business. My biggest question is why even with the involvement of Ministry level people and a consumer association, a so called accredited and approved institutes can still fold up so easily? What is in the so called requirement to get approval anyway? Simply has money to invest? Gosh... does anyone even start to sit down and think how many foreign students and poor hard working souls (especially those who really want education but got ignored by the other institutes) will be stranded? How many of the foreigners end up being exploited and becomes overstayer? There is even a news of a student who after schooling for a year, haven't obtained student visa. What's he staying with anyway? A work permit? Or simply an overstayer? Now, what does this seemingly mess produce? Some (or plenty perhaps) super rich and a dent in the image. Only after some folds up suddenly there is so called stricter requirements for registration. Gee.. why does it need to have some casualties before action?

Wellness clinic is also another SME growth in the latest years. Plenty of gullible people who thought they can save money by buying a year worth of service only to find out that their money flies away and no service can be obtained since the clinic folds up. Why would you buy the package anyway? Is the risk so low? Who will even guarantee your money should the clinic folds up? CASE will never care even after providing so called accreditation. What is the requirement anyway? Is it a good list of requirement if so many can fold up after the consumer's money run away? Who benefits? Well, again some (or plenty perhaps) super rich. Lots of unemployed immigrants (since their jobs are not interesting for Singaporeans) and clients with money in the black hole. Some of the immigrants surely will contribute to the social ill at the end of the day. Perhaps simply the case of the honest people being pushed to the corner. And yeah, no new regulations yet.

I question the roles of CASE and will they ever do better in protecting the consumer? Perhaps one of the possibility is to start a more powerful consumer association manned by people who can better predict and come up with better accreditation system and who can be hold responsible in a way if there a mess despite their so called accreditation system.

The bottomline is that there should be a simply risk assessment. The Government agency who is the stakeholders in any emerging business should sit together and carry out a risk assessment. They need to assess the positive and negative risk and think about what framework and regulations are required to safeguard the population. What I am looking at now is a Government who is so reactive that I wonder what they are doing in the office day by day. Is that so difficult to wish for proactive civil servants? They are not exactly paid low, supposedly at better than market to get the best. Too much to ask similar thing from the Government to make sure sufficient regulations are in place before victims show up? Is that so difficult to do a risk assessment? The workplace safety and health council just release a code of practice on risk management. I am confident that the code of practice can be easily used for non safety issues, provided they want some changes to better governance.

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