6. Cooperative or Company?

Photo: Mr Chandra Das speaking at NTUC FairPrice’s 30th anniversary celebration. Source: Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

It was a debate that lasted months in 1993, with FairPrice leaders split over one contentious issue: Should FairPrice become a publicly listed company? Then-FairPrice Chairman, Mr Chandra Das, was against it. He believed that its objectives would shift to profits and shareholders would fixate on its stock prices. In turn, the mission to keep costs low for Singaporeans would be lost. At one annual general meeting, after being pressed on the issue, Mr Das made his famous retort: “Over my dead body.”

He also made clear his position to then-labour chief Ong Teng Cheong, a strong proponent of corporatisation. Mr Ong was eventually dissuaded from it by Mr Das and Mr S. Dhanabalan, who was then-Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation and Minister for National Development.

Over the years, discussions on whether FairPrice should be listed have surfaced several times. The conclusion was always no. Today, 30 years later, Mr Das maintains his stance, but some leaders have changed their minds like former labour chief Lim Boon Heng, who succeeded Mr Ong. When the topic surfaced three decades ago, Mr Lim told then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew that he felt the move would make it difficult to persuade the public that FairPrice still offers the best prices possible. Mr Lee disagreed, believing that it boiled down to efficiency and productivity, instead of business structure.

Mr Lim, who is now Chairman of NTUC Enterprise, has evolved in his thinking. “If you asked me today, ‘Can the objective be met?’, I think Mr Lee Kuan Yew is right. It depends on how efficient and productive your operations are. It doesn’t depend on the cooperative framework,” he said. Mr Vipul Chawla, Group CEO of FairPrice Group, agreed: “Whether we are a co-op or a social enterprise, we need to always have the mission of increasing productivity.”

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. It Takes a Great Deal - A Catalogue of FairPrice Group Stories encapsulates the birth of the consumer cooperative in 1973 and its transformation into a $4 billion food enterprise that is now called FairPrice Group.

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.