Coronavirus: Singapore reviewing its stockpiles of essential items, diversifying supplies, says Chan Chun Sing

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Accompanied by Mr Seah Kian Peng, Group Chief Executive Officer, FairPrice Group; and Mdm Toh Hui Leng (left), Fairprice Chief Supply Chain Officer, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (centre) tours the Fairprice Benoi Distribution Centre on March 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Pickers pack online orders at the Piece Fulfillment Centre at the Fairprice Benoi Distribution Centre. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
A worker unloads household consumables from a lorry at the Fairprice Benoi Distribution Centre on March 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Singapore is reviewing its policies on stockpiling essential items to prepare for global and prolonged crises in the light of the coronavirus outbeak, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has said.

The country will also continue to diversify its sources to ensure a steady supply of essential goods and products, he told reporters last Saturday (March 7) after visiting supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice's Benoi Distribution Centre in Joo Koon.

"In the past, maybe our stock has to cater more to localised contingencies or regional contingencies. But in this particular case (Covid-19), we have to review some of our assumptions to look at the global contingency, where many of our conventional supply lines might be disrupted," he said.

On diversifying Singapore's supply chains, he said this entails looking at "where the goods come from, where the manpower comes from, which market supplies to us and even which shipping line to bring goods into Singapore."

For certain essential items, Singapore "will carefully build up some local capacities that we can surge in times of need", he added.

Mr Chan's comments come a month after Singapore saw a bout of panic-buying at supermarkets when the Government moved its disease outbreak response level to Orange, and at a time when citizens of some countries are emptying supermarket shelves there as the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread.

The minister cited how Singapore has diversified its rice supply, which mostly came from Thailand and Vietnam in the past. Today, the country also gets its rice from Japan and India, he noted.

For noodles, he said Singapore does not have to stockpile as much of this item as it can ramp up local production if needed.

But that also means the economic agencies have to examine where the flour and ingredients come from to ensure there are no loopholes in the entire supply chain, he said.

He noted that supply chains across the world are shifting, with some countries are halting exports of some products.

Singapore thus has to always think two steps ahead, he said. This includes having backup suppliers capable of opening up new supply lines "when things don't work out".

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"These are things that we have to develop over the years and it cannot be done overnight. Now even if you pay money, you may not have the relationship with the suppliers to provide us with the materials."

Mr Chan commended the staff from FairPrice and other firms in the sector for securing goods and products in overseas markets quickly, and at the most affordable prices.

One area in which Singapore can improve on is in replenishing supplies in supermarkets when demand surges, he said.

Referring to the panic-buying episode a few weeks ago, he said: "When we saw some of the shortages over the weekend, it was not because we do not have supplies in the country. Some of it was just that we took a bit more time to deliver it from here (distribution centre) down to the stores. So that is something that we will seek to do better moving forward."

He noted that while FairPrice is able to increase its delivery frequency from twice daily to thrice, the "whole nation's resources" should be brought in to reinforce the supermarket chain's capacity if necessary.

Mr Seah Kian Peng, chief executive of NTUC FairPrice, said the chain is increasing its inventory of essential items such as rice, canned vegetables, canned meat and biscuits, to better handle surges in demand.

Asked about the Covid-19 outbreak's impact on businesses, Mr Chan said it has affected many firms, beyond those in tourism-related industries, such as aviation, food and beverage and retail.

However, he said he is "quietly cheered" as more business leaders are making plans to diversify their supply chains to boost their resilience.

They are also aware that the shifting global supply chain will provide opportunities for Singapore to emerge as a trusted hub to do business, he added.

To help contain the coronavirus, Singaporeans can exercise personal responsibility, including by purchasing only whatever they need, he said.

Mr Chan also encouraged every family to have a small emergency pack that contains items such as thermometers, hand sanitisers, masks, first aid equipment and some food supplies.

Prioritise those front-line workers who need essential supplies more urgently, he added.

While Singapore has managed to keep the number of Covid-19 cases down, the spike in cases means "we must be mentally prepared that some time down the road, we might also see a spike in our cases, significantly different from the numbers that we are seeing today," he said.

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