Conflict of interest in Singapore’s dive industry

Since the 1950s, scuba diving has evolved to become a billion dollar industry today, making it a well-loved recreational activity. At the centre of the industry’s upward trend is the establishment of dive training agencies. They play an important role by ensuring that those who take up scuba diving go through a proper training programme, and are evaluated by certified instructors to be competent and confident underwater.

Dive shops and businesses work closely with training agencies but maintain a distinct and separate relationship, for good reasons.

To sell and teach courses to consumers, dive shops have to hire instructors who are certified by one of the training agencies and has a current licence to teach. These instructors and the shops they work for tap on the course materials (manuals, e-books, videos, online exams) which are written and created by the training agencies. Training agencies ensure that their instructors adhere to course curriculum and standards by conducting regular and ad-hoc audits. Dive shops may be driven by the bottom line, but they have to ensure that training is conducted safely and consumers are only certified if they fulfil the requirements.

As you can tell, dive shops and training agencies have to be separate entities. But a recent development in Singapore’s dive industry, involving one training agency, has raised concerns of a conflict of interest.

Before I go any further, let’s talk about some of the training agencies:

 

BSAC, CMAS, PADI, SSI, NAUI, GUE, TDI, IANTD, PSS ETC.

(If you are already a dive industry professional or a seasoned diver, you can skip this section but for the rest, here’s a quick guide)

Dive training agencies originate from many countries, and each has a slightly different programme, depending on the diving conditions in their respective countries: climate, water temperature, underewater topography, fresh water lakes or the ocean.

For example, BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club), CMAS and other European systems, tend to cater to more rigourous diving conditions, as their weather there is normally very cold and divers dive in freshwater lakes and oceans.

American systems like PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), SSI (Scuba Schools International) and NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) tend to cater to a more “summer” style of diving, hence they will break down their dive courses to more basic levels that will allow divers to enjoy the underwater world as soon as possible, but limiting their depth, with certain “no-no”s, such as entering overhead environments. Newbies are also closely supervised by dive leaders.

We know the best depth for most diving is shallower than 18m, where sunlight can penetrate, allowing corals to thrive and in turn more fishes to live, coral reefs in shallower waters are definately more colourful and vibrant.

With more interest in scuba diving, both the American and European training agencies are rolling out new courses and refining current ones, to suit the interests and passions of every person out there.

Technical diving schools, which offer advanced diver training,  like IANTD (International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers), TDI (Technical Diving International), GUE (Global Underwater Explorers), RAID, are also offering entry-level courses and the sports diving agencies like PADI, SSI, NAUI, CMAS and so on are offering tech-level courses that allow divers to go much deeper on rebreathers, and with mixed gases (higher concentrations of oxygen for example, or using helium in the mix). Most are following or exceeding guidelines set forth by WRSTC, the World Recreational Scuba Training Council, which sets the minimum training standards worldwide.

 

TRAINING AGENCIES: WHAT THEY DO

How do training agencies make money? Basically, they have their own system of diver education, all with one single objective in mind, which is to train safe, competent divers. The training agencies will train Instructor Trainers / Course Directors, who in turn, will train dive instructors, who can then train divers to a level they are certified to do.

The instructors or dive schools will of course use the system depending on the training agencies they represent, by purchasing materials and so on. With each certification, the instructors, dive schools and training agencies make money, the more they certify, the better. The number of student certifications is also very important to measure the success of each dive shop or training agency, but then of course that is not the only measuring scale.

 

CHECK AND BALANCE

The job of the training agencies, besides supporting the dive schools and instructors in terms of creating training materials and awarding certifications, is to market that particular brand too.  A big part of their job is to monitor the level of training standards by the individual shops and instructors, and to entertain complains if there are any. This is a check and balance system, which is good for all consumers, it keeps standards high and also to re educate those that flout standards, giving the industry a bad name.

So, after knowing this, it is safe to say that all training agencies should be neutral yes?

To be clear, in Singapore’s case, training agency refers to the likes of PADI, SSI, NAUI, CMAS, PDIC and so on, while dive shop refers to companies like us, example, Simply Scuba, Ren Scuba, Gill Divers, Deep Blue, Blue Reef Scuba and so on just to name a few.

 

A WORD ABOUT PADI

Let me declare that I’m presently a PADI Course Director and I also used to be a SSI Instructor Trainer for 20 years. The backbone of the PADI system, for many years, has always been their check and balance system. PADI is neutral, and will keep training standards high, and this is part of the reason why PADI till today, remains the most popular training agency, worldwide.

They are also very strong in marketing and branding the PADI name. It makes our job so much easier when a consumer walks in and says he wants to do his “PADI”, versus ”a dive course” or “whichever agency does not really matter as long as it is cheap”! There are shops in Singapore boldly calling themselves “The most preferred” or “the most popular” without knowing the real facts. What arrogance.

 

MURKY WATERS

The main aim of this blog, is to highlight to the reader this plain fact: That there are dive shops owned or operated by the very same people that run that particular training agency in this region.

This is potentially a conflict of interest. Think about it: If I’m running a business with a bottom line and certifying as many students as I can, can I also say – without any doubt – that I am not compromising the training quality and standards? What about the pricing of course materials and certifications? To keep the prices of my courses low for consumers, will I resort to cutting prices of my training materials and certifications to below costs?

What actually goes on internally, we as outsiders will never know, but there is always that risk.

 

So my question is this, how does it make sense for the other dive shops that represent that particular training agency and are privately owned? Is that training agency really neutral in their dealings? And again, where is the level playing field?

Let’s face it, at the end of the day, we dive shops are all still competitors, either friendly or not, we need to address this. I have represented that training agency for more than 25 years, and have seen the regional HQ “change hands” at least five times in those years, and when I finally see it as it is today, it is very sad. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very good training agency, they have state-of-the-art training materials and the standards are very high. In the right hands, they will continue to soar.

The “best” part of this whole thing?  Aiding same agency dive shops from our neighbours from across the border, which by the way, is also under their so called region, to come into Singapore, to a major trade show, and slashing prices. With their lower overheads, it makes it very challenging for us in Singapore to compete. Of course, some consumers do not really care as long as its cheap, and the certification card allows them to dive anywhere in the world, but I can only hope that those consumers will not find out why. If they can maintain standards at those prices, there is nothing I can say. But let’s see in the next few coming months.

Again, this blog is my personal view, so hopefully the other dive shop owners and freelance instructors operating here see it too. What has been done is done, l can only hope that changes can be made to make this little industry of ours thrive in better conditions. As it is now, we are going nowhere. Swimming aimlessly underwater is not a good thing, we all run out of air sometime.

 

Yours In Diving.

Christopher Lee.

PADI CD #466479.

SSI DMI #21373.

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