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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Race to the bottom



crufty's post, To win, everyone else must lose, got me thinking about my stint in the recreational scuba diving industry.

What is it about Chinese business mentality, where everyone else must fail so that one is able to succeed? Winner by default... that's the way Sam described it. He gave an example where he went to several Parisian souvenir shops selling mini Eiffel Towers for 20 Euros. And he was startled to see one store selling the same souvenir for just 5 Euros. Run by none other than a Chinese.

How did this practice come about? Can we trace it to some apocryphal tale where ancient Chinese got ahead by lowballing the competition to their bankruptcy?

Beats me. The same thing has been going on in the scuba diving industry. When I did my Open Water Diver Course at the beginning of 1995, it cost me SGD$750. The student-to-instructor ratio in the pool was 4:1. We had 8 pool sessions. In the sea, the student-to-instructor ratio was 2:1. We had 5 dives. For my technical dive courses, my pool and open water student-to-instructor ratios were 1:1. But I digress.

Fast forward to today, Open Water Dive Courses are offered at ridiculous prices of SGD$250, and in one case, even SGD$190. Student-to-instructor ratio in the sea is 10:1, sometimes even 12:1. Don't even bother to ask about the ratio for the pool sessions.

In the race to the bottom — by low-balling — customers end up the ultimate losers. Safety corners are cut; standards are diluted; equipment infrequently (and/or improperly) serviced; and personnel inadequately trained.

The operators blame the situation on the customers; claiming that most customers do not see the entire picture — they just look at the price. Hence, we continue to see overloaded speed boats ferrying bus loads of Singapore divers to Pulau Tioman; so-called dive boats with no GPS, no radio, no supplemental oxygen for decompression illness "hits"; and to make life more exciting, no life jackets.

It takes a dedicated dive operator to hold his ground when Customer X goes, "You are charging $750 for a basic dive course? But Shop Y is charging $250!" How often do divers think about what that tank of supplemental oxygen is worth to them? If it is revealed to them that it can make the difference between having a nasty ride in the decompression chamber for 6 hours, or never being able to walk again, will the monetary difference be that significant?

I am not advocating price-fixing, but rather that in a race to the bottom, something must give, and in the recreational scuba diving industry (I shall leave comments about the local auto enthusiast industry to crufty), it is often the safety standards that are compromised.

This is why we have legions of what the old timers denigrate as "dive bomber" divers. They are overweighted, packing an average of 8 pounds of lead each (in tropical waters???); inadequately trained; overly-dependent on their buddies; easily given to panic; their buoyancy control have only two modes: shoot to the surface like a Polaris missile, or crash to the seabed like the Titanic. These divers are incapable of diving without a dive master or instructor around. The destruction of the coral around Pulau Aur is largely attributed to these divers.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. While there is no exact formula between safety standards and price, value and price, to dismiss the positive correlation between them is pure folly.

And, inevitably, to indulge in a little scatalogy, when the proverbial crap hits the fan, and a customer is maimed or dies, fact-finders are chastised to "respect the privacy of the family in their time of grief," and told that "now is not the time to attempt a review of standards." The coroner or doctor reveals the death or injury to be drowning or near-drowning (What do they expect? He/she got hit by a meteor underwater?). A few months pass, the "dive bomber" divers are back bargain hunting, and everything remains the same.

To male Singaporean divers out there, think about your National Service days: do you really want to trust the lowest bidder for the provision (and maintenance) of your life-support equipment in a physiologically hostile environment?

2 Comments:

Blogger codfish said...

Just wanting to sound my agreement and support. You are completely right - this race for basement prices at the cost of everything else (like safety, quality) is not just foolish but also dangerous and stupid. If only people would think! Kudos, -ben, for a very wise and astute post.

March 22, 2007 8:38 PM  
Blogger -ben said...

Thanks, codfish :-)

At the expense of getting long-winded, I think the buddy system enables poor instruction. Too often have I heard instructors tell their clueless students, "Oh, it's OK if you haven't got it down, your buddy will take care of you." Well, that's all fine and dandy if the buddy is proficient. But the reality is that we often have an inept buddy pair in the water, with each of the pair thinking, "Oh, it's OK if I don't know what I am doing, I will just follow my buddy." And so, we have the clueless following the clueless.

Pairing inept divers with experienced divers is also not a solution, as sometimes it is the experienced diver who gets into trouble. In this case, the inept diver is unable to render assistance. In such an instance, the experienced diver is effectively diving solo but without an independent secondary air source, and, to top it off, is saddled with an additional responsibility (i.e. the inept diver) as well.

Add this to the legal liability when one is partnered up with buddy (to render all reasonable assistance), I wonder if recreational divers are truly cognizant of what they are getting themselves into when they allow themselves to be partnered up with a stranger.

If each diver is required to be self-sufficient, I believe standards will rise as students would be less willing to accept substandard teaching and demand more from their instructors.

IMHO, to have your back up source of gas attached to another pair of legs (which may swim away and disappear on you) is a very unwise practice.

Dive safe!

March 27, 2007 4:44 PM  

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