JOHOR BAHRU: Concerns about the novel coronavirus have sparked a shortage of face masks in Johor, with some smaller retailers seen charging above the price ceiling imposed by the government.
The authorities, however, said they have found no evidence of profiteering.
The southern state has become the frontline of Malaysia’s battle against the virus, with seven out of ten confirmed cases across the country detected in Johor Bahru.
Stocks for face masks and hand sanitisers across the city have depleted over the last week.
When CNA visited several major pharmacies on Monday (Feb 3), including those in JB Sentral, Jalan Wang Ah Fook and Taman Sri Tebrau, masks were out of stock.
Face masks and hand sanitisers were also sold out at Apex pharmacy at JB City Square as well as Guardian Pharmacy and Caring Pharmacy at JBCC Komtar.
In a Facebook post last Thursday, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs' (KPDNHEP) branch in Johor state said the government had imposed price ceilings for five different types of face masks.
While the major pharmacies were selling the masks at or below the price ceiling, some of the smaller retailers visited by CNA were selling them at a higher price.
At Taman Sri Tebrau, face masks were being sold at a Chinese traditional medicine shop and a grocery store at above the price ceilings.
The traditional medicine store was selling three-layer surgical masks at RM9 (US$2.18) per pack. This means that the masks cost RM0.90 each, RM0.10 more than the capped amount.
The face masks, which were stored in transparent zip-lock bags, were taken from a room at the back of the shop.
The shop owner, who declined to be named, told CNA that he was not aware of any regulation on the price of face masks.
Over at the grocery store, each three-layer surgical mask was going for RM1. This was RM0.20 above the price ceiling.
The masks were stored in a cardboard box underneath the counter.
The owner declined to comment on why he was pricing the masks above the set limit.
Furthermore, a stationery store at Jalan Wang Ah Fook also quoted RM8 for each N95 mask, RM2 above the price cap of RM6.
The store was located close to a Big Pharmacy outlet, which had run out of stock for face masks.
A staff member from the outlet told CNA that workers from neighbouring stores would snap up face masks in "large quantities" before re-selling them for a profit.
"I've seen them buying the masks by the boxes when they realise that the pharmacy's stock has arrived. It's not right but there's not much we can do," said the staff member who declined to be named.
Over at Taman Mount Austin, more non-pharmaceutical retailers were also selling face masks for a profit.
A florist shop located near a Guardian pharmacy outlet was selling two-layer surgical masks for RM10 per pack of 10. This was a whopping RM0.80 more than the capped amount of RM0.20 per mask.
The shop owner said that he did not usually sell face masks but decided to stock up because customers were requesting for them.
"I ordered a shipment from a supplier in Pasir Gudang and the boxes just arrived this week. I think RM10 for 10 face masks is a reasonable price," he said.
There was also huge disparity in prices at different stores.
An electronics store in Taman Mount Austin was selling Arax Japanese Pitta masks at RM3 for a pack of three. However, a provision store nearby was selling the same product for RM15.90, more than five times the amount.
Mr Ivan Yeo, who purchased the masks at the provision store said the authorities should ensure that all face masks are priced fairly and consistently across different retailers.
"We as customers are not sure. It's so difficult to find places that have stock for face masks so we tend to just buy when the stores are selling them," said Mr Yeo.
NO EVIDENCE OF PROFITEERING: AUTHORITIES
When contacted, a spokesperson for Johor KPDNHEP said checks on retailers across Johor Bahru were conducted over the last week following complaints regarding profiteering.
The checks were conducted at shops across Johor Bahru in Bukit Indah, Mount Austin, Setia Eco Park and Taman Daya.
The spokesperson noted that although stocks for face masks were depleted at most outlets, there were no evidence of masks being sold at prices above the maximum ceiling.
In Malaysia, face masks are regulated under the Price Control and Anti-Profiteering Act 2011.
Those caught will face a maximum fine of RM100,000 or imprisonment of up to three years, or both. Errant companies could be fined up to RM500,000.
CNA has contacted the Johor State Government for comment on further enforcement action on errant retailers, as well as plans on how to ensure there is sufficient stock for face masks for residents in Johor.
Meanwhile, pharmacies located near to the causeway said some Singaporeans had been making bulk purchases.
Ms Uvarani Kothandan, the manager for Caring Pharmacy’s outlet in JB Sentral, told CNA that the masks at her store were purchased “mostly by Singaporeans” as they were heading towards the immigration clearance at Bandar Sultan Iskandar.
“They were mostly families carrying Singapore passports. Many came over during the recent Chinese New Year holidays and bought the mask and sanitisers in bulk,” said Ms Uvarani.
Ms Jocelyn Wu, a Singaporean customer at the store who was looking to purchase face masks and hand sanitisers, said buying in Johor Bahru made financial sense as the items were cheaper.
Last week, the Singapore government said each Singapore household will receive four surgical masks from the national stockpile.
The move to distribute masks came after long queues and empty shelves for face masks were seen at retailers across Singapore.
Then, Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing had warned against the tendency to panic buy and hoard face masks.
"Such behaviour - they are not appropriate, they are selfish and they are not helpful to our collective defence," he said.