CASE and that cup of kopi

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By Tan Bah Bah

Unlike for public transport, price rises for a cup of kopi may not necessarily provoke a protest rally at Hong Lim. But they add up to the overall sense of helplessness of Singapore consumers in the face of sometimes arbitrary price hikes. And the organisation that is supposed to be at the vanguard of looking after their interests does not seem to be all that effective or even keen to be there.

In fact, the Consumers Association of Singapore was useful during the collapse of Five-Stars Tours only to the extent that it “helped” those affected file Small Claims Tribunal and insurance claims.  It received about 600 complaints, though 6,000 consumers were hit by the closure of the company.

It was a pretty major letdown, as Five Stars Tours was a popular Malaysian tourist bus company. CASE could have done more. The consumer body has been around since 1971. Forty three years of existence and all it could do was offer clerical assistance.

Now take the hikes in the prices of coffee sold in the kopitiams (coffeeshops) and hawker centre stalls.

There is a distinction between the hawker stalls and coffeeshops.

From what I understand, most of the coffee stalls within the hawker centres stalls in the heartlands continue to be rent-controlled. This is part of the government’s ways of keeping a lid on the cost of living.  Also, inflation can be reined in.

You can still get a cup of coffee at these stalls for 60 cents to 80 cents a cup, if you know where these stalls are, and for coffee whose quality is in no way inferior to that in the modern shopping malls.

Step away from these stalls and patronise the coffeeshops and the story is very different. Just not that long ago, you could still get a cup at 80 or 90 cents. Some foodcourt drinks kiosks are reasonable, given the cleanliess and comfort of the surrounding  – $1.20 a cup but some have become clearly exploitative. One popular chain charges $1.80 for coffee black.

The real gripe is with the coffeeshops.

One can still justify paying a certain amount of money for the convenience and environment of a foodcourt inside an air-conditioned shopping mall.

Many of these foodcourts are in malls next to MRT stations or even a bus hub.  You cannot complain. The rent is high.

And so long as there are the heartland stalls around, you have a choice of skipping these mall kiosks for the sip-and-run-territory of the ah sohs and uncles.

So far the heartland stalls are our frontline weapons in our battle against inflation and profiteering. You can have a fair meal and excellenet coffee without busting the ATM.

But the moment the other ubiquitous coffeeshops abandon their common man roots and adopt a free-for-all grab-every-cent approach, there might be a fightback by consumers.

Sometime back in the 1980s, taxi fares were jacked up arbirarily to “secure” a better lifelihood for taxi-drivers. First, the taxi-drivers suffered a massive drop in business. Second, many commuters decided to boycott taxis. They found that taking buses was so much cheaper and a large number did not return. The boycott became permanent.

A number of coffeeshops took advantage of the Chinese New Year to increase the prices of their coffee by 10 to 20 cents a cup which they will keep and not reverse. It looks like the seasonal cartel has raised its ugly head again.

CASE cannot forever hide behind its neutral-and-not-hostile-to-business stance. Time to go beyond testing and filing claims and be more activist on behalf of the rights and expectations of Singapore consumers.

For a start, it might want to draw up a list of coffeshops and stalls which have maintained and not increased their coffee prices. And publicise this list for all to read.

CASE should act more like a consumers’ lobby movement rather than a consumers’ mini kindergarten.