Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the FairPrice Group's 50th Anniversary Commemorative Dinner on 22 July 2023.
Mr Kee Teck Koon, Chairman, FairPrice Group,
Mr Vipul Chawla, Group Chief Executive Officer, FairPrice Group,
Members of FairPrice Group Board,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good evening to everyone.
I am very happy to join you this evening to celebrate this significant milestone. 50 years of NTUC FairPrice; 50 years of serving Singaporeans. 50 years to the day after Mr Lee Kuan Yew launched the first FairPrice at that time called NTUC Welcome Store in Toa Payoh. NTUC supermarkets have become a household name. People often say “NTUC” to refer to the supermarket, rather than to the Labour Movement itself! And indeed, Singaporeans can easily get their groceries and daily necessities at an NTUC supermarket nearby. Always at a fair price.
Today, at a time when people around the world are badly affected by rising prices, NTUC supermarkets are working hard to provide Singaporeans with products at competitive and affordable prices. That is FairPrice Group’s Mission. And that is why we started the first NTUC supermarkets back in 1973.
50 years ago, it was also a period of sharp global inflation. In Singapore, food prices rose more than 40% in a year. A big driver of this was a tripling of oil prices in the world and supply disruptions after the October war in the Middle East.
The government knew it had to take urgent action so that Singaporeans could afford basic necessities. It was in these circumstances that we established the first NTUC Welcome co-op supermarket. It was located at today’s Toa Payoh Central, opposite the Toa Payoh Swimming Complex. Its social mission was to moderate the cost of living by providing a range of essential products at competitive prices. In other words, to ensure that Singaporeans could obtain basic goods at a “Fair Price”. This was the name coined by Mr Lim Chee Onn later in 1983, when he was Secretary General of the NTUC, and when NTUC Welcome consolidated with other supermarket chains and rebranded itself – FairPrice. I am sure Singaporeans will agree that FairPrice has indeed lived up to its name.
50 years on, the world has changed. Singaporean standards of living have gone up enormously. But FairPrice Group’s mission remains as relevant as ever. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty was rife, especially at the beginning. As COVID cases worldwide started to rise, countries started locking down their borders. Some also introduced export restrictions on vital necessities, including face masks. We worried about our food supplies which all come from abroad. Panic buying was rampant. Viral photos circulated of empty shelves and freezers in supermarkets overseas. People tussled over rolls of toilet paper! Singapore was not spared. Stores were crowded with people stocking up in anticipation of a lockdown, rapidly swiping the shelves clean. But things quickly normalised after the Government came out to reassure Singaporeans that we had enough supplies for everyone. FairPrice played a crucial role in keeping their shelves stocked, and in maintaining confidence. Its strategy of stockpiling, forward buying, and diversifying import sources helped to overcome supply disruptions. Many FairPrice outlets stayed open till the wee hours, with staff working overtime, and even overnight, to replenish stocks. To reassure consumers that there was no shortage of supply, FairPrice placed newly delivered goods still on pallets near their outlet entrances, and shared time-stamped photos of stocked shelves on social media.
FairPrice also rolled out a “FairPrice on Wheels” programme during the Circuit Breaker period, they sent vans to deliver daily essentials to residents in selected estates. These actions went beyond ensuring that we had sufficient supplies. More importantly, they gave convincing assurance to Singaporeans that daily necessities were still available, and that we would be alright. This was three years ago, it seems an age because so much has happened since then but it is not such a long time ago. And just to remember that, if you look at the advertisements which FairPrice put in newspapers today, full page, big ads, celebrating their 50th anniversary, if you look carefully at the advertisement, you will see a little worker pushing a trolley and on the trolley there is a giant toilet roll. Those were the days.
FairPrice has given affordable food and reassurance to Singaporeans. Secondly, FairPrice has stood by its mission of moderating the cost of living by keeping prices affordable for Singaporeans. With inflation again today, a key concern, FairPrice has acted to moderate cost increases. Consumers enjoy discounts through value programmes like the “Greater Value Every Day” campaign where FairPrice controls price increases on popular essentials, and also gives a special 50% discount on selected items weekly. Last year, FairPrice extended the Pioneer Generation (PG), Merdeka Generation (MG) and CHAS Blue discount schemes, and saved customers over $11.5 million. FairPrice also absorbed the GST increase on 500 essential items from January to June this year. Besides essentials, FairPrice Group also held the prices of their signature breakfast items at Kopitiam and NTUC Foodfare. As an added bonus, every year during the month of May, FairPrice offers kopi and teh for 50 cents for members, in celebration of May Day and I am told this is very popular!
FairPrice Group’s consistent social mission is what makes it stand out. Singaporeans know they can count on FairPrice to ensure that their basic necessities will always be available, and always be affordable. This gives a great deal of psychological reassurance and comfort, especially in uncertain times. And it is something that I am confident FairPrice Group will continue to do for Singaporeans for many more years to come.
But I should point out – while FairPrice Group is indeed a social enterprise, it is also operating as a business, in a market economy. It has to pay rent, wages, and taxes like any other commercially-run supermarket. It therefore has to work doubly hard to continually reinvent itself and stay ahead of competition. At the same time, Singaporeans have become more discerning, people are now more well-travelled and they are exposed to a wide range of choices. Whether in terms of tastes, food produce, or even delivery modes. So FairPrice has also diversified and adapted to meet the needs of different consumers. For example, it stocks over 50 different rice brands, across many different varieties – brown rice, jasmine rice, basmati rice, hom mali rice – you name it. Besides the typical FairPrice stores, there are now FairPrice Finest, Xtra, Xpress, Shop, and also Cheers, each one tailored to meet a separate need.
Another big step forward is FairPrice Group’s digital transformation. This digitalisation journey is ongoing, but it began quite a while back. In 1991, FairPrice was the first retailer in Singapore to implement bar-coding at checkout counters. And in the 2010s, it developed its own e-commerce arm to compete with new players in the online space. More recently, it introduced new frontline technology initiatives such as unmanned Cheers Stores and the “digital first” store at Sengkang Grand, which is completely run on self-serve technology.
Last September, FairPrice Group partnered Standard Chartered to launch Trust Bank, Singapore’s first all-digital bank. It is integrated into the FairPrice Group ecosystem and allows customers to enjoy more savings. It achieved 100,000 sign-ups in 10 days, and now has more than half a million customers. Digitalisation provides customers a more seamless shopping experience, besides enabling FairPrice Group to improve productivity, lower costs and meet market demand.
Besides staying ahead of the competition, FairPrice Group gives back to the community by supporting the less fortunate. FairPrice Foundation launched in 2008 has a mission to provide “a Better Life for the Community”. Since then, it has donated nearly $180 million to the needy. FairPrice Group was also the first retail business to implement the Progressive Wage Model, to encourage skills upgrading while enabling low-wage workers to earn more. I think it was the first Progressive Wage Model in the retail sector. These initiatives provide assistance to those who need it most, and are a key part of FairPrice’s social mission.
Over half a century, FairPrice Group has come a long way. From a modest co-operative operating a single 10,000 square foot store in Toa Payoh to become one of Singapore’s prime retailers, with over 570 touchpoints across Singapore, delivering over one million customer experiences daily.
Your book “The Price of Being Fair” is a fitting tribute to this exceptional journey, and the men and women who participated in it and made it happen, all while holding true to your social mission, which remains very relevant today. And as long as you continue to fulfil that mission, the Government will give you their full support.
I thank FairPrice Group and your employees for your contributions to Singapore. Once again, congratulations on achieving this momentous milestone. Happy 50th anniversary.
Thank you very much.
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