As Savewell supermarkets closed, Sheng Siong was born

Savewell (above), which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era.
Savewell (above), which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era. ST FILE PHOTOS
Savewell, which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong (above) store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era.
Savewell, which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong (above) store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era. ST FILE PHOTOS
Savewell, which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice (above) is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era.
Savewell, which Phey Yew Kok had a hand in setting up, began to shut in 1985. The first Sheng Siong store took the place of a Savewell outlet in Ang Mo Kio. Today, FairPrice (above) is all that is left of cooperative supermarkets of that era. ST FILE PHOTOS

As one fell, another rose from its ashes. If not for events tied to the Phey Yew Kok saga, there may well not have been a Sheng Siong supermarket today.

As Savewell supermarkets - which Phey had a hand in setting up - began closing down in 1985 because of financial troubles, Mr Lim Hock Chee was operating a pork counter at one outlet in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3.

When Mr Lim was offered the retail space, he and his family pooled their money and took a leap of faith - and the first Sheng Siong store was born.

Today, FairPrice, one of Sheng Siong's main competitors, is all that is left of the cooperative supermarkets of that era.

FairPrice itself was born from a supermarket chain of two short-lived omnibus unions - the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (Silo) and the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU).

At its peak, Silo ran about 20 emporiums and supermarkets, including one branch at Changi Airport.

One of the more iconic ones was an emporium in Kallang Bahru, now the site of a restaurant, stores and, of course, a FairPrice outlet.

After Phey, who was the chief of both unions as well as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), fled the country on Dec 31, 1979 to escape charges that he misappropriated money, supermarkets run by Silo and PIEU were merged with NTUC Welcome to form NTUC FairPrice.

The cooperatives were the brainchild of then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee.

NTUC Welcome was the first cooperative supermarket chain. The first branch was officially opened in 1973 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and supermarkets under Silo and PIEU followed.

The Government's aim was to make daily necessities affordable to ordinary Singaporeans, especially at a time of soaring food prices due to the oil crisis.

In 1974, the consumer price index had shot up by 22.3 per cent.

NTUC Welcome's first chairman Baey Lian Peck was given $250,000 in capital by then Environment Minister Lim Kim San with the advice: "Keep prices low, fight inflation, but don't lose money doing it!"

To cut costs and lower prices, NTUC Welcome dealt directly with suppliers and curbed profiteering by middlemen. It also gave members rebates of 3 per cent to 6 per cent for purchases at its outlets.

Tee Zhuo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'As Savewell supermarkets closed, Sheng Siong was born'. Print Edition | Subscribe