January 2015

In light of the Sim Lim Phone Scam incident, discuss some of the issues related to Singapore's tourism industry.

1st Place - Andrew Toh

The recent Sim Lim Square phone scam incident calls us to re-examine our attitude towards tourists. Singapore attracts millions of tourists every year as our country is famed for its shopping paradise with hundreds of large retail malls island wide. Sim Lim Square (SLS), in particular, is notorious for some shady shops that sell electronic merchandise. The recent scam case that concerns a tourist is not the first of its kind, but it has gathered an unprecedented level of attention because it damages our international reputation as one of the least corrupt nations. We need to examine carefully how we are supposed to treat our tourists, and if there is any divergence in reality.


The SLS shop owner involved is clearly not representative of Singapore’s business image. Yet, he paradoxically plays a key role in forming tourists’ impression, especially when it is their first shopping experience here. In general, sellers are aware that they are unlikely to revisit the same shop again. Sellers could either give them a fair deal and a good impression, or take the chance to exploit their weakness of unfamiliarity and willingness to spend as a tourist. Doing the latter is a selfish act to gain a short-term profit which ultimately may reduce the overall number of tourists. Other shops that operate honestly would be affected by the negative sentiment caused by this selfish scam incident. Tourists are not cash cows; shop owners should not look to milk them dry before they leave. Instead, they should uphold the honest and ethical image of Singapore.


Official sources of tourist information and guides about Singapore could have included places to avoid, including the notorious SLS. But, their main purpose is to project a wonderful image of Singapore so it is quite awkward to warn tourists about notorious places. For instance, many guides recommend several shopping places like ION Orchard for luxury goods and even Funan mall for electronics but are silent about places to avoid. The disadvantage is that tourists would make a sweeping generalization that other malls are also great places to get good deals. It is no secret that SLS is not always a reliable place to shop for electronics. We cannot sweep it under the carpet anymore and then blame tourists for being unwary when they get bitten. We ought to provide sufficient information, including the good and the bad, for tourists to make the call themselves.


Shops and business owners have to be aware that the impressions they give to tourists have a broad impact on other businesses, including their own. A strong reputation, once broken, may take a very long time to recover. On one hand, we wish to give them tourists a good impression, but on the other, businesses strive to maximize profits. It is possible to achieve both through honest means, but taking a dishonest and selfish shortcut for profits would lead to a tarnished reputation that weakens the overall tourism image of Singapore.

2nd Place - Akankshita Dash

The recent incident at Sim Lim Square, where a poor Vietnamese tourist was conned into giving up his two months salary, has raised awareness of the issues concerning tourism in Singapore. Exploitation of hapless tourists continues to be a global phenomenon, but to see it in Singapore, a country reputed for its strict laws, adherence to rules, and hospitality, is completely shocking.


Singapore is the only country in Asia to have facilities and attractions not available anywhere else on the continent. Every year, millions of people from India, China, Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam visit Singapore to see Sentosa, Universal Studios, and Gardens by the Bay. But in recent years, the contribution of tourism to the economy has been decreasing. (Gallezo, 2012) This leads us to take a look at the issues concerning the tourism business.


Electronic items like hand-phones, TVs, laptops, tablets are known to be cheaper in Singapore than other Asian countries. In this tech-savvy country, phones and tablets are released earlier than other Asian country, that’s why tourists (and citizens alike) flock to shops to purchase the newest craze. However, as the Sim Lim Square incident revealed, there are many risks associated with buying electronics in Singapore- you may end up paying triple the price of the product!


Some of my friends and relatives, who recently went on a holiday to Singapore, said that the hotels were too expensive, and the ones available at cheaper prices were not appropriate for families. Expensive hotels warrant a shorter stay, so most tourists only see mainstream places like Sentosa, Universal Studios. My acquaintances told me that even after spending $80-$90 per ticket to Sentosa and Universal Studios, they still felt it wasn’t worth the money. Mainstream places frequented by tourists often have expensive tickets, and thus tourist tend to visit only a few places to save on money. This can be a problem for travellers on a budget.


Safety and getting around is obviously not an issue, as Singapore is one of the safest places in the world. But the uniformed tourist will take a cab to a place easily accessible by the MRT, and spends $18 instead of $1.50.


Such factors make Singapore a very expensive option for prospective tourists.

Places with natural, unspoiled beauty (Pulau Ubin, for example) aren’t very well known, and tourists miss out on these scenic places, labeling Singapore as ‘Disneyland of Asia’.

There isn’t a definite solution to all these problems, but for a start, there should be an official guide to tourist places in Singapore, which will be comprehensive and appeal to everyone. Secondly, there should be price regulation for electronics items in places like Lucky Plaza, Sim Lim Square,etc. and rampant overpricing should be prevented. Thirdly, the tourists themselves should be cautious and align themselves with a local guide to prevent mishaps experience Singapore in the best way possible.

3rd Place - Priscilla Tong

Images of a Vietnamese tourist kneeling before shop assistants begging for a refund and coins strewn across the floor went viral on social media, causing a storm within days, and attracting ministers like S. Iswaran and Tan Chuan Jin to weigh in on the issue. The scam tactics of aggressive retailers in the infamous Sim Lim Square were highlighted in Chinese and Vietnamese media, warning their citizens to be cautious when shopping in Singapore. In a country that relies substantially on tourism revenues, it has been said that Singapore’s once squeaky clean reputation has taken a hit with this incident.


Following the online posts, netizens attacked the owner of the shop in question unabashedly, displaying some equally reprehensible behaviour themselves. However, the generous hearts of Singaporeans also surfaced in a crowdfunding effort by a local, who was disturbed enough by the story to raise 1.5K for the Vietnamese tourist to buy the iPhone he desired. This would have been reported in foreign media as well, showing up the kind-heartedness of Singaporeans. Thus, I believe that Singapore’s tourism industry has not been too adversely affected by this incident. This is an isolated incident from a place notorious for its aggressive sale tactics, even among locals. While tourists may shy away from buying electronic goods in Singapore as a knee-jerk response to this incident, in the long-run the industry will work in a check-and-balance system to weed out errant retailers. Already, notices are common around Sim Lim informing shoppers of shops that have received multiple customer complaints.


With online reviews readily available, tourists also have many resources on hand to discern their purchases. Consumer rights laws in Singapore were recently reviewed resulting in the ‘lemon law’ and this incident only serves to further strengthen regulations against such questionable businesses, whether in the electronics sector or otherwise. Consumer goods sales in Singapore remain high and visitor arrival numbers enjoy yearly growth figures.


Given the constant construction of world-class tourism destinations here, and Singapore’s strategic geographical location, it will continue to remain a top tourism destination in the region.