1. Candles for Consumers, not Profiteers
Expensive by day, exorbitant by night. That was how candle prices waxed and waned in 1970s Singapore, when blackouts were frequent.
The prices of other items, from bread to rice, were equally at the mercy of merchants who could choose to raise prices – just because they could at that time. It prompted then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to intervene. “If shops are upping prices unreasonably, people must have an alternative to buy from,” he said in a speech in 1971.
“Three to four big cooperative supermarkets… can keep a check on retail prices. The NTUC can help organise this.”
That was precisely what the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) did. Experts were called in, surveys were rolled out and union members pitched in to raise funds for a new type of supermarket – one that would directly share profits with consumers through dividends and rebates, and keep prices stable and affordable.
In July 1973, two years after PM Lee’s speech, Singapore’s first cooperative supermarket opened in a quiet corner of Toa Payoh. Called NTUC Welcome, the 10,000 sq ft shop was fully air-conditioned and operated seven days a week. It sold everything, including candles.
A few months later, the world was rocked by the oil crisis that began in October 1973, pushing prices of basic necessities such as bread, rice and sugar into an upward spiral. As supply shortages and inflation squeezed consumers, profiteers again cashed in on the misery.
But this time, NTUC Welcome was ready to moderate prices.
Since its humble beginnings in a corner of Toa Payoh, NTUC FairPrice has become the quintessential Singaporean supermarket. The leap from a single store to a grocery giant is a tale of retail reinvention – a half-century journey that saw the cooperative confront crises and challenges, revamps and even robbers.
As it expanded and evolved, FairPrice never wavered from its core mission: to moderate the cost of living for consumers.
Through 50 remarkable stories, we celebrate the people, products and places that mark significant milestones for the food retailer over the last five decades, charting its growth and successes in the past, present and into the future.