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FEBRUARY 18, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 6

Gripe, Gripe, Gripe
Asia's silent consumers get a chance to vent

Robert Chua is sick of complaining. After enduring years of bad service from restaurants and businesses alike - and watching his entreaties for improvement go ignored - the Asian media entrepreneur will soon guarantee that his voice is finally heard, loud and clear. With the launch of a new website,, Chua is promising that irate consumers across Asia will have a forum to ensure that they are given more than just the cold shoulder. "There are a lot of people out there who have a complaint, but think either that there is no avenue for that, or that saying anything won't do any good," Chua says. "Now they won't have that excuse anymore."

Set to launch in March as the first pan-Asia site dedicated to consumer affairs, will serve as an independent forum for consumers to communicate - both negatively and positively - with businesses throughout the region. Free for users, will feature consumer polls, topical discussion groups and, of course, a section for venting wrath, all segmented into 17 country-specific sites. Companies interested in accessing this repository of consumer feedback can pay a monthly membership fee of $32, which also entitles them to the appealing prospect of deleting complaints once they have been replied to online.

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Although the chance to gripe in public is the site's big draw, Chua is quick to add that generating bad publicity for businesses is not the sole purpose. "It's meant to open a channel of communication between consumers and companies," Chua says. "There's also room for compliments. It's a democratic forum, so if the complaints win out, that should tell you something."

The timing of the launch seems auspicious. Asia's emerging middle classes - never particularly activist on consumer issues - appear to be growing less tolerant of shoddy goods and services. For example, Hong Kong's Consumer Council estimates that in the last two years, the number of complaints in four key sectors (telecommunications, travel, finance and food) has more than doubled. In a society that traditionally frowns upon outright confrontation, the practice of lodging complaints and seeking redress for grievances is slowly gaining currency. "It's a very Asian way to just stay silent and be resigned to the situation," says Suberna Shringla,'s development consultant. "I do think, though, that people really do have something to say. If you provide a place to do that, then they will certainly start the lines of communication," he says.

Just ask AKKY-san, the nom de guerre for a very unsatisfied Japanese customer whose online showdown with the Toshiba Corp. last year led to a personal apology from a high-ranking executive. After purchasing defective VCRs, AKKY-san complained to the company, was insulted in return, and so took his case to the Web, creating a Japanese-language site that chronicled his tale of abuse at the hands of callous customer-relations representatives. The episode illuminated for millions of polite Japanese the power of the Internet as a consumer-friendly tool. Where tradition might have dictated that speaking out demeaned one's image, going online allows an impersonality that is both liberating and satisfying.

"By making complaining a little less personal, will make it easier for people who might otherwise have had second thoughts about expressing themselves," says Shringla. The site is committed to decorum, however; no foul language will be allowed, and users will be required to register to cut down on anonymous flaming and crank complaints.

"The web is changing the culture of how businesses interact with their customers," Shringla says. Indeed, many company websites these days encourage customer contact. In the U.S., popular e-commerce sites such as and eBay afford shoppers a chance to browse customer feedback on products and sellers before buying. Just check out U.S.-based, which has essentially the same goals as and pitches itself as an unbiased consumer guide.

ComplainAsia's founders hope some of that "mad-as-hell-and-won't-take-it-anymore" attitude prevalent in the West will catch on. Consumers such as AKKY-san and Julius Moltgen lead the way. After Moltgen, a 37-year-old Internet strategist, celebrated his wedding banquet at a Hong Kong hotel last summer, 16 of his guests came down with food poisoning. When Moltgen requested compensation, the hotel's attorneys accused him of attempted extortion. "They knew they could completely get away with it," he says, "and they never even apologized." Moltgen has since started his own web site to combat corporate indifference, www.get But his site so far has attracted no other Asia postings save his own. He is convinced most consumers continue to feel resigned to, rather than riled by, rough trade. "If people in Asia get treated badly by a business, they just think it's bad luck and forget about it," he says.

In the past, consumers may not have wanted to complain because it was culturally unacceptable, agrees Christina Wong, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong's Consumer Council. But she is equally convinced that attitudes are changing, at least in Hong Kong. "Consumer awareness is increasingly high, and people are more likely to complain these days, since they understand that this may solve the problem." Adds Shringla: "Asians have been putting up with substandard service for a long time now," he says. "ComplainAsia means they don't have to be quiet about it anymore." So long, silent majority.

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