India overtakes Thailand to be Singapore's top rice supplier

Sacks of rice at Sheng Siong. India has overtaken Thailand as the biggest rice supplier to Singapore - the first time this is believed to have happened. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN 
Sacks of rice at Sheng Siong. India has overtaken Thailand as the biggest rice supplier to Singapore - the first time this is believed to have happened. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN 

INDIA has overtaken Thailand as the biggest rice supplier to Singapore - the first time this is believed to have happened.

Thailand has been the top source of the staple here since at least 1998, accounting for over half of overall supply between 1998 and 2011. Last year, this fell to 35.3 per cent.

New figures from the Government's trade promotion arm, International Enterprise Singapore, show that India was the top rice supplier from January to August this year at 92,865 tonnes, or 32.9 per cent of the total.

Thailand was second at 85,816 tonnes over the same period, or 30.4 per cent of the total.

The country is famous for its premium grade of Hom Mali rice, with its premium rice brands, such as Royal Umbrella and SongHe, the long-time favourites of diners here.

But there are several factors driving the shift in supply patterns among major rice suppliers.

"Importers (are) taking advantage of the lower prices of Indian rice compared to Thai rice," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Since 2011, the Thai government has been buying rice from farmers at above-market rates, building a stockpile at home. This has reduced the amount of Thai rice available for export and resulted in higher prices of the staple, she said.

Supplies from India, as well as other countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar, have grown as much as ninefold since 2004.

According to the Singapore General Rice Importers Association, the shift began when global rice prices began surging in 2008.

Back then, massive floods in Thailand led to a supply shortage. Other rice-producing nations also curbed exports to ensure adequate domestic supply and importers here hastened to look for alternative sources.

Importers say the changing palates of Singaporeans are also a factor.

Topseller's assistant vice-president Chia Bee Luan said: "Singaporeans are eating less rice and more dishes these days so they are less fussy about their rice."

The recent influx of foreigners with different preferences may also be fuelling demand for non- Thai rice, she said.

Topseller, a major supplier here of rice to thousands of hawker stalls and restaurants, started buying rice from India last year while its supply from Vietnam has surged over the last few years.

Importers say eateries are also switching to cheaper rice sources to cope with rising costs.

At FairPrice, a 5kg bag of Double FP Thai Hom Mali Premium Quality Fragrant Rice costs $11.45. FairPrice Jasmine Fragrant Rice from Vietnam costs $7.80, and FairPrice Ponni Rice Parboiled from India costs $7.90 for the same-sized bags.

Supermarkets are also noticing the change.

In the first nine months of the year, 42.5 per cent of Dairy Farm Singapore's housebrand rice was Thai, down from 68 per cent in 2010. The company operates Giant, Jasons and Cold Storage supermarkets. At Sheng Siong, Ponni and white rice from India made up over 9 per cent of housebrand rice sold at the chain last year, more than double that in 2010 and 2011.

Accountant Christie Leow, 46, switched to Vietnamese rice earlier this year. "It's cheaper and we eat out a lot so we are used to non-Thai rice," said the mother of two. "I don't notice much of a difference."

limjess@sph.com.sg