The management of the Suntec City shopping mall has been accused of bullying a small business that was already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and demanding a hefty sum amounting to S$132,000 even though the retail store was never open to the public.
The allegations against Suntec City’s management APM Property Management Pte Ltd were made yesterday (26 Nov) by We The People (WTP) Store co-founder, Nison Chan. Mr Chan and his colleagues launched WTP in 2016 as a retail business that brought products on crowdfunding platforms directly to consumers.
Aiming to bridge the gap between creators and consumers by building the world’s first omnichannel crowdfunding retail chain, WTP helped startups accelerate by introducing a tangible “touch-and-feel” aspect into the online crowdfunding process through their front-facing retail store at Millenia Walk.
Over the years, the Singapore-based small business grew, drawing a loyal following. It even opened a branch at Silicon Valley, in the US. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, however, decimated the retail firm and WTP decided to end its business operations on 1 Nov.
In March this year, before businesses foresaw what a huge economic impact COVID-19 would have, WTP signed a tenancy agreement with Suntec City and paid a hefty S$48,000 security deposit to the management. The business was supposed to fit in their unit at Suntec City in April.
That month, the COVID situation in Singapore worsened and the government imposed a lockdown-style ‘circuit breaker’ to curb the spread of the virus. The owners of WTP could not move in or complete any works during the four-week circuit breaker period. It could not even hire workers during that period.
Although WTP’s unit at Suntec City remained boarded up in the following months, the mall’s management went after the small business for rent. Mr Chan wrote on Facebook that WTP commenced negotiations with the landlord in early June but was met with silence despite repeated emails, phone calls and visits to the management office.
Claiming that all WTP wanted was to negotiate and seek a mutual solution, Mr Chan said: “The entire no-show from them went on all the way for 4 months till end September, passing the date of our supposed opening.”
Mr Chan said that it was only when WTP sought professional mediation that Suntec City’s management took notice. The very next day, the management offered WTP a discounted rental rate. Asserting that the discount made no sense, Mr Chan pointed out online: “They replied the very next day, offered a discounted rate which didn’t make sense at all. You still had the audacity to send us an invoice for rental of August despite our unit NOT BEING OCCUPIED and HOARDED UP until now? Are you seriously oblivious to the entire situation? Unbelievable. No formal meetings was initiated, no proper discussion and now this?”
When Mr Chan finally managed to speak to his leasing manager on the phone, he was told that two other companies were in a similar situation as WTP but managed to open up. Revealing that the companies were Kopitiam and Shake Shack, Mr Chan expressed disbelief that his small business was being compared with massive multi-national chains:
“So finally, we spoke on the phone and she mentioned that there were 2 companies in the similar unique situation as us but they opened up in the end. If I remembered correctly, it was Kopitiam and Shake Shack. Are you seriously comparing huge MNCs to a SME here?”
Mr Chan added that the leasing manager was very aggressive and even said that the management doesn’t care whether his firm is rich or poor. He recounted: “Her response, ‘Oh if you bought a property, the agent doesn’t care if you are rich or poor. They only bother if you pay up’. With all due respect, I think you got the wrong context here.
Even when we spoke on the mediation, her tone was extremely aggressive and mentioned that should the mediator feel we should pay up 1/4 of our remaining security deposit to Suntec, and whether we would be agreeable. I refused to answer on anyone’s behalf, knowing the call could be recorded."
“But she went on to ask the same exact thing aggressively 4 more times, I refused to answer. What was your point? I kindly requested for the full 48k to be paid back in full to us. Worse of all, you even rejected our official request for mediation. I mean, if the situation was favourable to you, why would you have rejected it?”
Mr Chan received a formal letter from the management firm’s lawyers yesterday. He was told that he would have to pay outstanding rent from August to Nov 2020, advertising and service charges and interest for these outstanding payments, amounting to a grand total of S$132,000 despite the fact that the store was never open and the fact that the unit was boarded up all this while.
Sharing that he has no idea how to respond to the legal letter, Mr Chan lamented, “The entire process of them dragging their feet and not replying was indeed distressing…How are we supposed to know anything if there wasn’t any form of basic communication at all throughout the 4 months?”
He added:“This pandemic has caused our tenancy agreement to be affected materially. At the same time, as a result of the lockdown, there are no office customers and no tourists. It was near impossible to go ahead with the fitting-out, operate the business and honour the contract as if it is business as usual.”
Asserting that many tenants within Suntec City have been affected by the lack of proper, sufficient and timely communication from the landlord, Mr Chan criticised the lack of empathy and understanding Suntec City’s management allegedly showed towards its faithful tenants during the pandemic.
Seeking justice, Mr Chan said: “On behalf on so many, I am utterly disappointed and disgusted with the nature of your behaviour and I hope there will be justice for the SMEs to brave on through this pandemic. I hope the Fair Tenancy Agreement goes through ASAP. We deserve better as SMEs, and I sincerely hope the bullying stops now.”