LENTILS do not usually make headlines. But you must remember, this is Malaysia, and Deepavali is just weeks away. The legume is enjoying the fame and glory of saffron, price-wise, that is. Lentils, or what Malaysian Tamils call ulunthu, have been grabbing headlines the past few days, especially in Penang. The prices have gone high enough to have alerted the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry into action.
Welcome to Malaysia. Come festivities, Malaysians hit the market, and very early, too. But, something unwelcome always happens. And, it happens all the time. There is not enough flour to make the crunchy muruku. Or, there is limited stock of meat to cook the much-sought-after rendang tok. Or, chicken meat turns scarce and there is not enough to make pansoh manok during Hari Gawai. And, expectedly, prices hit the roof. Well, almost. Even if there is enough, greed creeps in, and traders begin hoarding the goods to push the prices up and beyond the affordability of many. Profiteering rears its ugly head every festive season, be it Deepavali, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Pesta Kaamatan or Hari Gawai. And, it happens like clockwork.
It is for this reason that the government introduced the Price Control and Anti-Profiteering Act 2011 (PCAPA), which compels traders to sell controlled items at not more than the ceiling price fixed by the ministry. The ministry also requires traders to prominently display the prices of the controlled items in pink tags. What more can it do, you may ask.
But, there are problems with this. One is the timing of the announcement of the controlled items list. Usually, the ministry announces the list some 10 to 15 days prior to the festivities. This happened during the recent Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations, when the ministry named 21 items under the Festive Season Price Control Scheme (FSPCS). Deepavali will be celebrated on Oct 18, and the FSPCS is yet to be issued, but people are already complaining of exorbitant prices and disappearing festival items. Newspapers have even reported traders making a whopping 150 per cent on certain grains and spices. Turmeric and chillies seem to go northwards in prices when they are ground into powder. Is it a question of demand and supply? If so, people need to know. But, the truth may lie elsewhere.
Another problem is enforcement. It is not that we do not have laws to curb profiteering. The PCAPA is precisely designed to curb profiteering. If traders fail to comply, they face hefty fines or a jail term of up to three years, or both. Although the ministry deploys officers throughout the country, especially during festivals, there just seems to be not enough of them to curb greedy traders. This is a perennial problem, come whatever festival.
Perhaps, it is time we did a little consumer “policing” ourselves. And, it is easy to do, too. Just snap a picture of the price tag and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or simpler still, call 1-800-886-800 to lodge your complaint. Consumer “policing” may just be the answer.