Competition watchdog doing more market studies

Chief executive Toh Han Li said the Competition Commission of Singapore is doing a market study on big data.
Chief executive Toh Han Li said the Competition Commission of Singapore is doing a market study on big data.

Singapore's competition watchdog has broadened its scope in recent years. It does more market inquiries, such as the recently released infant formula study.

While its bread and butter is to probe anti-competitive practices, market inquiries help to plug a gap, Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) chief executive Toh Han Li told The Straits Times.

"Sometimes there are situations where players in the market may not have infringed the law, but there are some features in that market which are not making it work as well as it should be and I think the formula milk study is a good example."

Mr Toh, 50, created the Policy and Markets division in 2013 to specialise in these studies and to advise government agencies on competition matters.

The CCS, a Ministry of Trade and Industry statutory board, employs 39 lawyers, economists and accountants for case work. It handles about 40 inquiries and investigations at any one time. If anti-competitive behaviour such as price-fixing is found, it has the authority to fine firms up to 10 per cent of their annual business turnover in Singapore, up to a maximum of three years.

The year-long formula milk inquiry, which began in 2015, looked at the supply chain here to establish the cause of the high prices, which have more than doubled over the last decade. CCS found manufacturers raising wholesale mark-ups.

Rather than competing on price, companies build "premium" brand images and target private hospitals to encourage early adoption and cement consumer loyalty, it found.

The CCS' recommendations to increase price competition were broadly accepted by the Government, which has formed a task force to implement key measures by the end of the year.

Said Mr Toh: "High prices in itself is not an infringement of the Competition Act... we are not a price regulator. But it's important to understand the reasons behind high prices."

The CCS chooses areas to look into based on available evidence and market impact, with more cases now arising from guilty parties who step forward under its leniency programme, which grants the first to come forward full immunity.

There were six such cases completed over the last year, compared to two the year before. The programme is a big help in detecting infringement cases, said Mr Toh.

Its work appears to be paying off - Singapore was ranked fourth in effectiveness of antitrust policy in last year's World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report.

The CCS is now doing a market study on big data, and putting together a handbook on competition in e-commerce to share with its Asean counterparts. "It's important to be forward-looking and understand some of these fast-moving developments so that when cases come, you're better equipped."

Tiffany Fumiko Tay

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Competition watchdog doing more market studies'. Print Edition | Subscribe