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The Unions, the Press and the People

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 8, 2008

Leong Sze Hian & Choo Zheng Xi

Let the people eat…detergent?

Does the media’s reporting of detergent prices reveal a deeper conflict of interest that may harm the country?

Once in awhile pearls of wisdom are found in The New Paper. Larry Havekamp a.k.a. Dr Money, in his financial column in The New Paper, likened statistics to bikinis: what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital (New Paper, May 5).

We refer to the article in the Straits Times headlined “Rice and cooking oil lead price rise: New Case survey of prices across retailers points out cheaper options for buyers” (Straits Times, May 3).

The body of the article stated that:

Its survey showed that NTUC FairPrice had the highest number of cheapest items ranging from shower foam and dishwashing detergent to canned pork luncheon meat and eggs.

For lower-income families, some of the items selected for comparison are hardly appropriate, as they may account for a very small proportion of their total household items expenditure.

In a time when the focus of most families is on basic necessities, we need to ask if goods like salt, shower foam, dishwashing detergent and clothes detergent should be counted in the survey.

One might argue that cleaning clothes is a necessity. However, the magnitude of the weightage accorded to cleaning products is truly surprising: 5 of the 21 items selected for the survey are detergents.

Why do detergent items form such a high proportion, about a quarter of the items selected? Although Singaporeans are renowned worldwide for our cleanliness, one must be obsessive compulsive to spend one quarter of one’s household income on cleaning products!

Has a combination of a government controlled press and a government controlled union helped in any way, to glorify NTUC? Unless this is addressed, the people who need cheap sources of necessities most are the ones who may suffer. In the long run, the credibility of the unions, and to some extent, the press may be at stake.

NTUC the cheapest – really?

If we take away the detergents, the supermarket with the highest number of lowest-priced products is not Fairprice, but Sheng Siong with 7 items, followed by FairPrice in second place with 6 items.

If we confine ourselves to just food items, Sheng Siong is also tops with 7 items, compared to FairPrice’s 6 items.

According to Case’s web site, it’s last two price surveys, released on 3 January 2008 (House brand bread survey) and 24 July 2007, showed that the cheapest house brand white bread was at Cold Storage and Shop & Save ($0.0017 unit price (per gram) compared to Fairprice’s $0.0019 including the 5% discount), and the cheapest rice (10 kg) was at Giant ($13.95 compared to FairPrice’s $16.20).

This means that FairPrice’s house brand bread and rice, was 12 and 16 per cent more expensive, respectively.

Even it’s earlier price surveys released on 1 June 2007 (Milk and sugar survey) and 14 February 2007, showed that the cheapest milk powder (1.8 kg) was at Sheng Siong ($17.70 compared to Fairprice’s $17.90), and the cheapest instant noodles was at Sheng Siong and Giant ($0.95 compared to Fairprice’s $1).

So, why are we being constantly told that Fairprice is the cheapest, when even Case’s surveys seem to indicate otherwise?

Conflict of interest?

The Straits Times seems to have always given favourable coverage to NTUC.

The NTUC and the government have enjoyed a ‘symbiotic relationship’, to the extent that the Secretary-General of the NTUC sits in Cabinet as a Minister without portfolio.

Similarly, the government has significant influence with the press. This is often taken as a given, but it is important to identify the legal source of the conflict of interest to better understand the issues at stake.

Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, shareholdings in newspaper companies are divided into ordinary shares and management shares. Each management share entitles the holder to the equivalent of 200 votes in the appointment of the board of directors of the newspaper company as well as its staff.

Under Section 10 (11) of the Act:

The holder of management shares shall be entitled either on a poll or by a show of hands to 200 votes for each management share held by him upon any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff of a newspaper company but shall in all other respects have the same voting rights as the holder of ordinary shares.

Management shares must be approved in writing by the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts (section 10 (c) of the Act), and the newspaper companies have no power to refuse the Minister’s approval granting management shares (section 10(2)).

In summary, those who control management shares may have a disproportionate influence on appointing key personnel on the board of directors which oversees the general direction of the organization, as well as disproportionate influence in staffing decisions, which may extend to editorial level.

Who owns these management shares?

A look through the annual report of Singapore Press Holdings in 2007 reveals companies with government links such as Singtel (13.3%), DBS (9.5%), National University of Singapore (5.36%) and yes, NTUC (16.34%) are the owners of such management shares.

A handful of private companies have management shareholding. However, it needs to be remembered that a member of the same Cabinet of which the NTUC head is a Minister either approves or rejects their applications.

In summary, there are two significant conflicts of interest at play here: NTUC’s representation in a government which chooses who can and cannot hold management shares, and NTUC’s significant management shareholding allowing it a large say in the board of directors and editorial staff selection of the Straits Times.

In light of the above conflicts of interest, the extremely positive coverage the Straits Times is giving to NTUC is making both organizations look compromised.

Why it matters to ordinary Singaporeans

TOC has previously pointed out the issues of self-promotion in “NTUC’s $4m gift to less well-off workers”.

As a result of the newspapers’ favorable coverage of NTUC, a family already struggling to make ends meet might end up spending more than they otherwise would. Stories that portray NTUC in a positive light may prevent people from making informed decisions about where to shop.

It is also grossly unfair to other heartland retailers without management shareholding in the national press to compete on this unequal platform. Every positive article on NTUC is essentially free advertising for its brand on a scale which others, like Sheng Shiong could never match.

In a time when every dollar counts, we need free platforms of information devoid of conflicts of interest to tell citizens objectively where the cheapest places to find necessities really are.

Read also TOC’s earlier articles:

NTUC’s “gift” – helping the poor or blatant exploitation?

5 Minutes With… Leong Sze Hian on NTUC discounts

A brief incident which says a lot



32 Responses to “The Unions, the Press and the People”

  1. OMD said

    Okay I get it. 5 /21 of the so-called discounted items are cleaning stuff things. And it maybe true that most families do not spend that much on cleaning things (even this needs to be tested as a hypthesis. I don’t think it is fair that TOC makes judgements like these without doing any kind of research first. That is a statement of assertion, not fact) compared to essential items.

    Which begs the question: What is an essential item? Does TOC know? Has it studied this?

    Secondly, ST was reporting on Case. It did not come out with the study itself. So I really don’t see why the target is so keenly trained on ST when Case should be the one being questioned.

    That said, I agree that ST should have done much more. It should have questioned the wisdom of such a study, when it was not quite reasonable to conclude that NTUC is indeed the cheapest. (BTW it came to that conclusion because of the number of items that were found to be cheaper. Quality of items was not taken into account)

    Now there is certainly scope for a newspaper and its reporters to investigate the truth more, instead of taking it at face value, which I ST, indeed any of the traditional media, has failed to do.

    Is that, as you claim, a conspiracy to make NTUC look good, or sheer incompetence or *gasp” laziness on behalf of the reporter when faced with a survey such as this? That is a question best left to the reporter and her editor to answer.

    I certainly applaud the blogosphere for acting as the media watchdog. It, TOC in this case, does need to do more research, imho.

  2. Maddog said

    Excellent piece of fair reporting.. look, we need TOC to act as a watchdog against bias reporting by ST..

    GLC and Temasek own most of the property companies in singapore and they are largely responsible for the spade of inflation we have seen recently ( rents etc ).

  3. MMSMPMMC said

    It has long known there are a lot of strings attached in these organization.

    Quote OMD, “Is that, as you claim, a conspiracy to make NTUC look good, or sheer incompetence or *gasp” laziness on behalf of the reporter when faced with a survey such as this? That is a question best left to the reporter and her editor to answer.”

    That’s exactly the point here, the press is also in cahoots with all these reports. So does OMD thinks that we have a fair level ground press in Singapore that the editor understand the word “fair”?

    “Ka Ki Nang” policy and practice are everywhere in SGP but lets hope there is no exsistence in our democratic gahmen.

    Lastly, the new logo from NTUC is so copied from Seng Siong.

    Seng Siong – “Its all about you!”
    NTUC – U

    So if it is all about Us, make the NTUC house brand product even cheaper than other supermart. Give 25% discount on all house brand. The report said house brand are not inferior quality but I have to second on that as I have tried out some of the house brand, yes they are cheaper but you pay a price to get better quality food. One such example is the Korean Kim Chi instant noodle. Compare the house brand with the popular Korean brand and you will know what I mean.

    Isn’t it ironic when the organization was setup initially as a Co-Op to help curb profiteering and regulate the price of the general necessities back then? So the name “Fair Price”. It should have top the list in all the items surveyed in that report to come up as lowest price for Us.

    Taken from Fairprice website:

    “……..At about the same time, other unions such as the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO) and Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU) also set up co-operatives to run supermarkets to help curb profiteering. SILO and PIEU later merged to form the Singapore Employees Co-operative (SEC) in the early eighties.

    In May 1983, amidst growing competition and the need to be more efficient in costs, a merger between NTUC Welcome and SEC resulted in the enlarged co-operative known as NTUC Fairprice Co-operative Limited.

    Since then, NTUC FairPrice has continued with its original mission to stabilise the prices of essential consumer products and gone on to become the people’s supermarket.”

  4. Expected Analysis said

    Fellow Singaporeans,

    Do we still need to doubt the ‘real credibility’ of SPH, NTUC and CASE?

    Here’s the transparent fact:

    Chairman – Tony Tan
    Board of Directors
    Tony Tan
    Prof. Cham Tao Soon
    Alan Chan Heng Loon
    (Ex-CAAS, MHA, MFA, PM’s Office)

    Yeo Guat Kwang – President (PAP MP)
    Lim Biow Chuan – VP (PAP MP)

    Right, left, center, inside and outside, they’re all linked. No need to suggest, imply nor insinuate!

    Change must and will materialise…..
    made possible by non-complacent Singaporeans.

  5. Daniel said

    “Do we still need to doubt the ‘real credibility’ of SPH, NTUC and CASE?”

    Birds of the same feathers and Shit !

    TOC MOderator’s note: Daniel, your comments are edited to remove cussing.

  6. TheWrathOfGrapes said

    If I recall correctly, it was reported in the papers that NTUC Fairprice, as a cooperative, does not have to pay corporate tax. If that is the case, they should be even better placed to pass on the savings to consumers in the form of EVEN lower prices…

  7. TheWrathOfGrapes said

    I guess this is another instance of the government helping the poor to lower their cost of living expenses…

    Dear Prime Minister, tolong please

    From: ChinChaiOne 28-Apr 12:15
    To: ALL 1 of 57

    Dear Prime Minister,

    We citizens of singapore urge you to PLEASE MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

    We DO NOT NEED your help. Every time, you mention HELP, we have to run for cover!!!

    Help the poor? Raise GST!

    Help traffic flow? Up ERP!

    Help passenger service? Up Bus fare/MRT fare!

    Help us get taxi? Raise taxi fare!

    Help us get good government? Raise Minister and Civil servant salary!

    Everytime YOU WANT TO HELP, we all PAY FOR IT!!!

    THANK YOU THANK YOU…TOLONG LAH, please, we will HELP OURSELVES, no need your help liao.

    We DARE NOT ask for help any more!!!

    Sir, most honoured sir, I urge you NOT TO HELP Singapore INVEST also!

    Everytime your wife invest, we all lose money! Kao liao, kum siah!

    Just let us have a dose of bad governance, like recently the Mat Selamat case, like dat….so far, it is ok, your incompetence, we ACCEPT!

    PLEASE DO NOT help us have better security! Wait we all kena PAY FOR IT!!


    I think it is ok lah, please just take your salary and enjoy life ok?

    Thank you thank you,

    I am very chin chai one, any how any how, no need to help oso can one.

  8. Eveline said

    They do have to pay tax. FP’s PBT in 2007 was $103 mil and tax payable was $2.9 mil. You can download their annual report from the website.

    Net profit attributable to shareholders was $83 mil.

  9. patriot said

    NTUC is a business entity, hence like all businesses, profits must be the priority and as argued repeatedly to justify profitting; shareholders’ interests must come before consumers'(buyers of goods and services). It is just that their concerns for shareholders overwhelmed their sense of looking after consumer interests. So from profitting from businesses(transactions with fair pricings ), it becomes profiteering(charging at unreasonable higher prices) from consumers. And the rises in Rice prices charge by NTUC stands outstandingly glaring. Dare I say it outsides all others, in an example of profitting beyond fair profits. Worse, NTUC went against its’ own pledge of looking after the interests its’ member and the general public.

    The quest to look after shareholders, may I say, is the duty of every business, but there is no need to overcharge, sell at beyond reasonable price/rate and with marketing gimmicks. The freshness of goods, especially seafood products, vegetables, poultry/dairy products and other perishables are also important. Such products should be labelled with expiry dates and prices be lowered as they move near the expiry dates; say 50% one day, 30% two days and 20% three days before expiry for fishes, crabs and shells etc.

    The intertwined, interelated connections and working relations of the Union Movements, Consumer Association and the Medias(Press/Tele, broadcasts) lie in one constant factor and that is, all these organizations are steered by PAP Parliamentarians. There is similiarities in HDB Town Councils except for the two opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir. Otherwise, their individual functions and duties can be independent of each others, which ideally should be the norm. Imagine NTUC Customers going to CASE to lodge a complaint against it and the Medias go after the news for reportings. In the end there can be a possibility of the NTUC Customers facing a family of PAP Parliamentarians and their staff. Hilarious?

    In any case, Leong Sze Hian and Choo Zheng Xi have both given us some clear ideas of the working relationships of all three here. I thank them !!


  10. shopper said

    For years, I used to shop at NTUC. But lately, after making comparison, I’ve come to the conclusion that Sheng Siong has the best value for money. So I’ve switched totally. Furthermore, I would rather support a true privately run business, and not another government linked company.

  11. tunkudon said

    sheng siong sheng siong sheng siong. ya i think their stuff really cheaper !!!!

  12. George said

    There is yet another angle to this pro-Fairprice.
    I have noticed it for some time that SPH will try to avoid as much as possible printing anything adversed about a major advertiser. NTUC Fairprice is one such advertiser. I became suspicious one day when it refused to print a letter I wrote about some dubious claim made in an advertisement by a rather big Japanese multi-national. It never saw the light of day. If you care to be more discerning, this underlying subtle pro-big advertiser policy will become obvious. So, in the end its all about $$$. What else can it be with a govt link entity?

  13. Gary Teoh said

    Not only Sheng Siong,giant,shop & save, prime,and mamak shop also selling cheaper and better products.

  14. CynSkep said

    While I agree with the need to compare prices, sometimes it may not be feasible for consumers to go “hopping around” to get the cheapest items simply because they may have to take feeder buses (and subject themselves to ever-increasing bus fares!!) to reach other supermarkets not conveniently accessible by walking. Whatever savings there may be may not be sufficient to cover the cost of public transport…

    Unless there are a few supermarkets within convenient walking distance then it would be worth the effort to get the best-value groceries.

  15. TheWrathOfGrapes said

    /// Eveline Says:
    May 8, 2008 at 11:21 am
    They do have to pay tax. FP’s PBT in 2007 was $103 mil and tax payable was $2.9 mil. You can download their annual report from the website. ///

    Eveline, you are partially right, but only technically. They do pay tax, but not the corporate tax rate. The quote was from the man himself Mr ex-NTUC Income CEO Tan Kin Lian in his blog:

    /// * As a cooperative society, it enjoyed a different tax treatment from commercial companies. ///

    Although he is referring to NTUC Income, I believe this preferential tax treatment should also be applicable to NTUC Fairprice as it is also a cooperative.

    From the figures provided by you, roughly, the effective tax rate is only 2.8%. The corporate tax currently is 18%. This is a huge, indecent, humongous advantage. In fact, NTUC Fairprice is as good as not having to pay tax…

  16. ireadpapers said

    brilliant reporting! i noticed that the overwhelming inclusion of washing products was very unlikely myself; it’s easy to skew any comparative study through what one chooses to include/exclude. as to what constitutes a basket of “essentials”, i think an economist would be best placed to give a definition for that here. one would expect, of course, that CASE would consult the opinions of such experts; failing that, the authoritative stand the paper takes on its basis of comparison would, at its most harmless, reek of irresponsible journalism. i think CASE *should* be interested, if its figures were taken out of context simply to promote Any supermarket chain.

    the onus now is on the ST to clarify what it meant by the article, and to defend the items they used to make their comparison. like it or not, our papers are canonical to quite a few people and they owe us the responsibility of an answer. is it blatant advertising; or sheer incompetence? or will they evade the issue completely?

  17. CheeCheongFun said

    Malaysia will lower toll charges to alleviate inflation. Will our government do something better to help “its people”

  18. help the people said

    The Singapore Govt will definitely help the people. They will raise ERP so that the eleetist can have a smoother drive down the roads.

    You are welcome.

  19. Seeking Salvation said

    If u take a comparison of your own commonly used household items such as rice, toothpaste, soap, milo etc NTUC does not even hold a finger against other genuine competitors such as Sheng Siong, Giant etc

    With the GST of 7pct everything is much higher now. What has our politically infiltrated CASE done for the average Singaporean consumer aside from shutting their mouths.

    I prefer to shop for some of my essentials across the Causeway as the exchange rate was in my favour. Take for example the price of Barilla spagehetti is about $4.20 to $5.50 in Singapore is $2.20 across the Causeway. Pure profiteering well blame it on the Government as the GST is a added on effect on business costs. Australia does not add GST on food items except our so called caring garment.

  20. aLee PAPa and the XX THIEVES said

    Seeking Salvation,
    Don’t you know that staying alive is a luxury? Of course must TAX!
    Question, besides cooperating with the garmen, in what way is NTUC a cooperative?
    Oh… ya right… POOR people are FORCED to join and pay membership fees.
    Maybe we can set up a TOC cooperative? A true cooperative whereby members are allowed to see the real cost price (plus operational costs) of products. A cooperative whose aims is not to make profits, but to benefit its members… Oh, that’s communism… die die cannot…

  21. Tang Li said

    Hey – NTUC is Helping the POOR help Themselves. And Competition ….. how vulgar, do we want such Western values in our society of “Asian Values” of letting the well to do rip us off.

  22. Daniel said

    “Malaysia will lower toll charges to alleviate inflation. Will our government do something better to help “its people””

    No, no, of course not. Our gahmen are unique and indifferent. They are so smart that they can defy logic and nature. Instead of doing thing right, they do the right thing using inverse logic that work well in Singapore, delivering the coffers billions every years that make them fuc$#king rich. So they will continue to increase toll charge to curb inflation because if they increase toll charge so high people won’t drive car, and therefore petrol’s demand and supply will drop. Remember, our coffers are so amazing in their reasonings that the citizen can do nothing but amaze at their “intellect”.

    Our clown Prince and his army of jokers speak for themselves:
    Foreigners does not take job away from local but increase job for local.
    Yeah, it is true as long as you are the Ah Loong hiring foreigners not the local that been victimize.

    “Increase GST to help the poor.” That true too, if you are the poor minister who always money not enough even though they paid millions.

    Do I need say more how our gahmen are super-intelligent that anything else below them sound insulting to them… No wonder they worth millions.

  23. macktheknife said

    If Malaysia can resist, and lower down the prices on a number of commonly used products plus making a hasty curb on Singaporeans traveling across to JB, why can’t our government emulate? I really don’t get it! NTUC should work with Sheng Siong and Giant to maintain an affordable pricing of these products. I understand they are competitors but in difficult times, but why fight amongst themselves and then people suffers?

  24. Daniel said

    the sad thing in Singapore is that it is about money and the government perpetuate that. When the whole government run Singapore as Singapore Inc more than as government, do we expect to seek help from them ? Remember the remark on crude mentality by LKY. Such is the calculative and oppressive Leeders Singapore have. They afraid helping citizen lead to crude mentality and complacency, and heavily dependent on government. Ironically, they are the one already having those characteristics. Pretty lame government.

  25. […] Posted by The Singapore Daily on 9 May 2008 Our 147th|151st Press – The Online Citizen: The Unions, the Press and the People […]

  26. Vincent said

    “The NTUC and the government have enjoyed a ‘symbiotic relationship’, to the extent that the Secretary-General of the NTUC sits in Cabinet as a Minister without portfolio.”

    I should think it’s the other way around. A Minister without portfolio sits in NTUC as Secretary-General.

  27. TheWrathOfGrapes said

    How accurate are the CPIs? Is inflation really around 6 to 7% for the year?

    My coffee “O” just went up from $0.70 to $0.90, up 28.6%
    Fairprice Double FP Thai Fragrant Rice wnet up from $14.40 to $19.50, up 35.4%.

  28. tunkudon said

    what the f%^&*k , i really cannot take it any more , today ST trying to find fault about other supermarket.saying their price not uniform . any their price still more expensive than other pp . f$%&K THEM

  29. TheWrathOfGrapes said

    Sze Hian,

    A bit off topic, but still on the subject of rising costs…

    Can you write something on this cashcard thingy costing $5 and non refundable. Somebody is getting greedy and charging $5 per piece. They are forgetting that they are keeping the free float. Imagine if there are a few million pieces and each card holds $100, then the amount of cash they have collected UPFRONT is a few hundred million dollars. The interest on these prepaid cards a few million dollars a year – and they still want to charge us $5 each.

  30. ZhuGeLiang said

    Once, someone ask the boss of Shengsiong why he can afford to get the lowest price from suppliers. The boss just said “I am good at paying money!”

    What this meant is that the Shengsiong boss always pay hard cash for his goods. For suppliers, no credit risk. Hence, they are willing to give a good price.

    Maybe something for our Aunty Lucy to learn, so we can get low food prices. Maybe pay hard cash for rice instead of on credit.

  31. Anonymous said

    THE What Union(you mean there is a for worker union in singapore?), THE Whose Press(PAPaya’s?) And THE people from Where? China,India or ____ (other cheap places)

  32. thinking said


    since we have alot of people coming to yr site, can we contribute the prices in different supermkt on various basic food item. help singaporean get the cheapest in the mkt.

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