Parents do the Causeway shuffle in quest for cheaper milk powder

Customers looking for milk powder among rows of infant milk powder tins in FairPrice Xtra supermarket at Nex.
Customers looking for milk powder among rows of infant milk powder tins in FairPrice Xtra supermarket at Nex.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Twice a year, bank executive Audrey Wong, 36, and her husband drive to Johor Baru - to fill their car with tins of milk powder for their two children.

Their commute - done for six years now - takes three hours per round trip, but saves them close to $100 a month, more when the children were younger and their formula milk cost more.

"We will buy two cartons containing 12 tins at a go, which can last us for about six months," said Ms Wong, who has a son, seven, and daughter, four.

At the Chinese provision shop in Johor Baru, Ms Wong can buy a 1.8kg tin of Similac's stage four milk powder for RM100 (about S$32) or 40 per cent cheaper than it costs here.

"We get asked if it is safe... I don't think it is an issue if you buy it from proper shops," she said.

  • Clearing parents' doubts on milk powder

  • Dr Yang Linqi, a paediatrician at Thomson Paediatric Centre, answers some questions frequently asked by parents.

    Q How do I pick an infant milk powder?

    A Ask your paediatrician if your child requires any special type of formula milk. Do your research on the brands, their prices and availability. Then buy a small tin and monitor your child while he or she is on the milk powder. If your child tolerates the milk well (no diarrhoea/constipation/rashes/increased gassiness), then you have found the milk powder for your child.

    Q Can I switch between brands?

    A Yes, the basic ingredients in all formula milk are similar, hence it is fine to switch between brands. However, different brands have different added ingredients and sometimes, that can make a small difference in your child's stool pattern. One tip when switching brands is to do so gradually and monitor the baby's condition and stools while doing so.

    Q What are the minimum ingredients that should be present in the infant milk powder and what are they for?

    A According to the World Health Organisation's guidelines, 100ml of formula should contain 60kcal to 70kcal of energy. These guidelines are also very specific on the amount of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and other substances such as choline, myo-inositol and l-carnitine. These ingredients are essential to ensure the well-being of the child, providing building blocks for growth and development.

    Q For how long must my baby be on milk powder?

    A There is no recommended duration, but babies can start taking cow's milk by the age of one, since they would be eating solids by then.

    Q Are there circumstances where my baby might need a special type of formula milk?

    A Yes, for example, babies who are allergic to cow's milk protein will require extensively hydrolysed formula, or soya formula if they are not also allergic to soya protein. A baby with strong family or personal history of allergy may benefit from taking partially hydrolysed whey formula. A child who is chronically ill or premature may require formulas with higher caloric content.

"In fact, the label states the milk was manufactured in Singapore."

Like Ms Wong, many parents continue to feed their children formula milk after they turn one "because they are accustomed to it", although it is not necessary - fresh milk and a balanced diet are deemed adequate for their nutritional needs.

Facing skyrocketing formula milk prices in Singapore, many parents have resorted to either buying milk powder overseas, turning to Chinese medical halls and heartland provision shops at home, or bulk purchasing to get them at marked-down prices.

A March report in The Straits Times said the average price of a 900g tin of formula milk had soared 120 per cent over the last decade to $56.06, outstripping the price increases of other dairy products and household staples.

Ms Wong said there are often other Singaporeans buying milk powder from the same JB provision shop she frequents, and at times the milk powder is sold out.

Mr Jason Teo, 35, a purchaser in the marine industry, drives to JB for the same purpose. He makes a trip every month to a JB supermarket to buy two 1.8kg tins of Pediasure milk powder for his four-year-old daughter, which saves him $40.

"Raising a kid is very expensive and I had to look into ways to save," he said.

Others, like postgraduate student Kwan Yu Heng, 29, save by buying in bulk at baby fairs.

"They will have 'buy five get one free' promotions, which saves us 20 per cent," said Mr Kwan, whose son is 11/2 years old. A tin of S26 would normally cost him over $50.

Parents have told The Sunday Times that buying milk powder from Chinese medical halls or certain provision shops in the heartland can also save them a few dollars a tin.

An inquiry by the Competition Commission of Singapore has found the steep rise in formula milk prices to be due largely to aggressive marketing tactics such as sponsorships and payments to private hospitals to distribute their products, and building up "premium" images to entrench consumer loyalty.

All of the 30 parents The Sunday Times spoke to said they chose milk powder brands based on recommendations from friends and family members. When asked if they would consider switching to a cheaper brand, even though it is just as good - most said they would not, for fear that their children would not like the new taste or tolerate the new milk powder well.


We get asked if it is safe... I don't think it is an issue if you buy it from proper shops. In fact, the label states the milk was manufactured in Singapore.

MS AUDREY WONG, who heads to Johor Baru twice a year to buy milk powder for her two children.

But with government measures under way to make milk powder more affordable, including the review of imports to facilitate more options on shelves, parents are hopeful.

"For the longest time parents accepted it as a way of life... It would be a relief if the measures bring the cost down," said digital marketing manager Candice Ng, 34, who has a daughter, aged three.

•Additional reporting by Winnie Tan and Tang Fan Xi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Some cross the Causeway to buy in bulk at cheaper rates'. Subscribe