Preface – Modernise or Perish: The Labour Movement Goes into Business

Photo: The concept of cooperatives was mooted at the NTUC 1969 Modernization Seminar. Source: NTUC

The year was 1969, and delegates from the National Trades Union Congress’ (NTUC) affiliated unions were gathered at the Singapore Conference Hall in Shenton Way for some serious soul-searching.

Then-Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee’s solemn speech set the mood. “It has been evident for some time that the labour movement has been in a state of depression, if not of demoralisation,” he began.

A landmark Employment Act had come into effect the year before, regulating labour conditions in Singapore. As a result, many workers felt that unions were no longer relevant, evident by falling membership – from 120,000 in 1965 to 90,000 in 1969.

Amid all this disenchantment, NTUC organised a four-day seminar, titled “Modernization of the Labour Movement”, which would be a chance for the unions to pull themselves together and plot a new way forward.

NTUC’s first Secretary-General Devan Nair believed the labour movement must modernise or perish. It should observe three principles: the capacity for self-exceeding, the power of vision and of making projections, as well as an adaptability to changing conditions and a will to realise the vision of the future.

The alternative, he added, was to end up in the rubbish heap of history.

Similarly, Dr Goh argued that the trade unions’ “simple traditional virtues of militancy and struggle” had little relevance in newly-independent Singapore. He suggested seeking a new role by setting up cooperatives – owned by members with profits distributed among them – that cater to their different needs while ensuring services remain affordable.

The Modernization Seminar was a pivotal moment for NTUC. In the next few years, it heeded Dr Goh’s advice and set up various cooperatives, from insurance to health to transport, changing the complexion of the labour movement as it went into business. But they were highly unique businesses, run with a social purpose but managed professionally and competing with commercial outfits.

Instead of perishing, NTUC sold perishables. Its cooperative supermarket made headlines as it was set up amid raging inflation with the price of rice, in particular, hitting record highs. NTUC Welcome was launched in July 1973 to combat profiteering and inflation, with a goal to moderate prices for consumers.

A decade later, Welcome merged with two other supermarket cooperatives, also founded by the unions, and became NTUC FairPrice. As the FairPrice Group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the multi-billion dollar food enterprise has surmounted many challenges to get to where it is today.

The improbable success of a consumer cooperative founded by the labour movement is best captured by first labour chief Mr Nair’s three principles, which have been reimagined into five sections – Dare to Dream, Dare to Grow, Dare to do Good, Dare to Innovate and Dare to do Well.

These five sections contain 50 stories of people, products and places, which look at how far FairPrice has come – from a single store in Toa Payoh, to a network of over 500 supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies and cooked food locations islandwide.

Together, the stories showcase how the cooperative is more than a supermarket or a food enterprise. The FairPrice Group story is about an organisation and its people rising continuously to self-exceed in the battle against crises such as SARS and COVID-19 to stabilise supplies and cost, spearhead new retail formats and strategies to cater to changing lifestyles, and ultimately, moderate the cost of living for Singapore.

What does it take to build a consumer cooperative that seeks to go beyond profits to serve a larger and crucial purpose? It takes a great deal.

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.