Pawnshops thrive as Singaporeans face rising cost of living

By Bhavan Jaipragas  /  AFP, SINGAPORE

Sun, May 19, 2013 - Page 14

Singaporean housewife Siti Khadijah Abdul Rahman accumulated a few thousand dollars’ worth of gold accessories over the past two decades, but now, the rising cost of living is forcing her to pawn them.

With a stretched household budget that must also cater to school expenses for her two teenaged children, the 49 year-old is pawning her gold to relieve pressure on her security guard husband, who earns S$1,500 (US$1,211) a month.

“Pawning is better than going to friends or family when you have budget problems,” Abdul Rahman said. “When I have money, I will claim it back.”

She is one of a rapidly increasing number of people opting to take short-term pawnshop loans to try to keep up with rising prices, in what the Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked the world’s sixth most expensive city to live in. Singapore’s pawnshop industry has seen phenomenal growth at a time when rising prices and a slowing economy are putting pressure on the household budgets of middle and lower- income families.

Loans surged to S$7.1 billion last year, up 43 percent from 2011, according to industry registry data. Singapore has one of the highest concentrations of millionaires relative to its population, but the city-state’s per capita income of more than S$65,000 last year masks a sharp income gap between the richest and poorest.

The three major pawnshop chains — which make up the bulk of the nearly 200 pawnshops across the island nation of 5.3 million people — have sought to take the shame out of using personal property as collateral for short-term loans.

“You look around you, this is probably one of the most expensive places in the world,” said Derek Da Cunha, a local socio-political observer.

“Without the stigma [of borrowing], pawnshops have become more respectable and we have working professionals using it as a means to get short-term loans to cope with their expenses,” he said.

Families like Abdul Rahman’s in the bottom 10 percent of Singapore households had to weather a 1.2 percent dip in income adjusted for inflation last year, statistics department data showed.

Healthcare costs rose 3.9 percent year-on-year last year, government data showed. A consumer group said the average price of a bowl of noodles with fishballs, a staple dish, was 20 percent higher last year from a year ago at S$3.

Prices of basic food items like rice, meat, vegetables and dairy products have also risen.

Some public-housing apartments in choice areas now cost more than S$1 million, while car ownership also remains out of reach for many due to high taxes and a vehicle quota system.

People who pawn their goods have the items assessed by shop experts, and the loans the shops grant usually carry an interest rate of 1 percent in the first month, then 1.5 percent a month thereafter. Items must be redeemed within six months or get forfeited, unless the borrower renegotiates a loan.

One borrower who declined to give her full name said pawning was a better alternative to seeking short-term loans from banks, which require paperwork and are not guaranteed to be approved quickly.

“For the older generation, if you have the gold, it’s better to get the loan from the pawnshop,” said the factory worker who renews her loans with a neighborhood pawnshop every six months.

Valuemax and rivals Moneymax have thrived, both in fierce competition with the fast-growing Maxi-Cash, whose initial public offering in June last year raised S$16.8 million despite weak market conditions. Grilled storefronts that used to be a mainstay in pawnshops have been replaced by outlets that boast uniformed staff and resemble commercial bank branches.

Younger and more affluent customers, unperturbed by the stigma once associated with pawnshops, have also become an important clientele for an industry that has softened its image with endorsements from local celebrities. Apart from gold, they also pawn diamonds, rare gems and antique watches.

Singapore’s usually business-friendly authorities say they are closely watching the rapidly expanding industry, with some concerns that such accessible loans might help fuel gambling in the world’s third-largest gaming market behind Macau and Las Vegas.

In April, the law ministry called for public feedback on a proposed amendment to laws governing pawnshops to strengthen governance of the industry.

Da Cunha does not believe the government will impose any drastic measures.

“Pawnshops are already embedded in Singapore society. It is far better than the next alternative, which is for Singaporeans to seek loans from loansharks,” he said.