So what’s new? Tension on the Korean peninsula appears to be easing and US President Donald Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey in a move Democrats have condemned as politically motivated. Meanwhile, there has been very little reaction on Wall Street, showing that while many people out there are vilifying President Donald Trump and expressing disgust at the things that he is planning to do (vis-a-vis climate change), there is no sign of their disapproval in the stock market.
Back home, the authorities have finally come up with an explanation for the absurdly high infant milk formula prices in Singapore. Parents interviewed were shocked and disappointed to learn that the rise in marketing expenses was a key factor for the hike in formula milk retail prices. According to our main PAPer, the Straits Times, a report released by the Competition Commission of Singapore on 10th May 2017 found that between 2010 and 2014, the amount that all major manufacturers spent on marketing increased 42.4%.
But wait a minute. Does this 42.4% apply to the cost of marketing the product in Singapore? Why increase marketing cost when the market here is so small and our birth rates are falling? If the figure applies to the worldwide marketing budget, then it could mean that the manufacturers have increased their distribution networks and there is no reason for prices here to be much higher than elsewhere unless…
Now, let’s zoom in on a very telling (intentionally or otherwise) article from Today.
… following a year-long inquiry prompted by public concerns over rising formula-milk prices, the Republic’s competition watchdog has found that significant barriers to entry in the industry have pushed up prices here to among the highest in the world.
… the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will tweak import requirements to allow more suppliers into the market and encourage price competition.
Existing guidelines from the Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee Singapore, which prohibit the sale of formula milk online for infants younger than six months old, will be relooked.
If someone had looked in the first place, where is the need to relook? Instead of focusing on the marketing costs of the infant formula manufacturers (and making them the scapegoat), let’s take a look at the barriers to the trade set in the name of consumer protection. The uninitiated, insecure and protection-hungry Singapore public may wish to know that in recent years, barriers have also been raised for medical supplies, materials and various healthcare products. The amount of paperwork (requiring clerical manpower) and regulatory fees to be paid have put many low cost bucket shops (metaphoric: whole shop in a bucket) out of business. I recall the days when some of these bucket shops had no minimum orders, negotiable credit terms and an overall friendly, casual approach towards business. Not anymore. Everything is invoiced. Everything is billed. The new level of “professionalism” costs money.
Our PAPers also reported that consumers are shocked and gave vivid descriptions of “aggressive” sales tactics by infant formula companies. It’s as if they have not seen a lot more of that outside the banks, in front of malls and MRT stations. If people aren’t afraid of being misled by aggressive bankers, relationship managers and financial advisors, why should they need protection from flashy infant formula ads and their sales staff who are far less pushy if you ask me?
The bucket shops remind me of the Sungei Road debacle. Mr Koh Eng Khoon, chairman of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods who has been widely known in Singapore over the past few months of campaigning for the survival of the Sungei Road Second-hand Market, is being investigated by the police under the suspicion that he sent a threatening, hand-written, unsigned letter with his name written at the bottom to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The police visited Mr Koh at around midnight, took a picture of him, checked his phone, confiscated it and asked if he understood what offence he had committed by sending the letter to the DPM! The police also asked him who helped to take the video (which had garnered much moral support on social media) for him. He was asked to give the contact number of The Online Citizen (TOC) writer and videographer.
I find it worrying to think that anyone can write your name at the bottom of a threatening letter and get you into as much trouble as Mr Koh just got himself into. There was even a conspiracy theory that the letter was sent by the powers that be to warn Mr Koh not to be too outspoken. To his credit, Mr Koh is undeterred. He promised to fight on. Unlike some academic who may lose his job and be forced to apologise not once but twice for criticising a minister, Mr Koh lives in a one-room flat and has far less to lose. It’s depressing to realise that the only heroism in this country is going to come from the dying breed of Hokkien peng while our well bred officers surrender and apologise at the first sign of danger.
© Chan Joon Yee