March 2024 Issue: Co-operator Newsletter Quarterly March 2024

“I am able to influence a change as a co-operator,” NTUC FairPrice's Tng Ah Yiam

“I am able to influence a change as a co-operator,” NTUC FairPrice's Tng Ah Yiam
Caption: “I am able to influence a change as a co-operator,” NTUC FairPrice's Tng Ah Yiam

Mr Tng Ah Yiam has done some “purposeful work”, as he calls it, at Singapore’s largest and only cooperative retailer, NTUC FairPrice. The phrase is most apt. After all, this man had stood by his first job, through thick and thin, like a committed marriage, growing from an ambitious youth with a hasty attitude and a swanky motorbike to the organisation’s chief procurement officer several decades later.

“In the ‘80s, it was hard to get a job. I knew I needed to find one when I got out of the army. And so I applied to NTUC Welcome,” says Mr Tng, who had joined the cooperative retailer a year before it rebranded to NTUC FairPrice in 1983. Mr Tng, the eldest of five siblings in his family, knew the extra income would help offset some of the family’s financial burden. The year was 1982, and he was 21.

“It was a small role, though. I was a trainee and my first outpost was here at Serangoon Gardens (where the shoot took place),” he says, pointing enthusiastically at the retailer’s floor mid-interview.

For a young chap with little working experience, the co-operative was Mr Tng’s entry into a vastly-changing working world, where technological advancements and a global shift towards laissez-faire capitalism (away from planned economies in the ‘70s) defined the era. When NTUC FairPrice came to be in 1983, the co-operative retailer served to keep daily essentials within reach for all in Singapore by selling staples at reasonable prices to the public. “It was and still is a bold and purposeful mission,” Mr Tng adds.

Tng Ah Yiam NTUC FairPrice SNCF Chairman
Mr Tng Ah Yiam has been a co-operator since the 80s. 

Not one to shy away from the menial and dirty chores, like deboning a chicken or slicing up a whole grouper apart, customers would sometimes find him serving them behind a cashier counter. “I love being a cashier,” Mr Tng confesses. “That’s where I get to talk to the customers and understand their needs and preferences on a deeper level.” On his days off, he would occasionally pop by to help his team. “I am a people’s person.”

For Mr Tng, the co-operative offered him a semblance of stability and a platform to grow. He proceeded to climb the ranks within the co-operative slowly, first supporting his supervisors and peers at Serangoon Gardens, then managing daily operations at a supermarket in a new location, where he started to catch on to the consumers’ demands and trends while on the job, before the opportunities to develop skill sets in the mid-and upstream operations surfaced.

“With little land and few natural resources, Singapore produces nothing, yet it has everything,” he muses. “This was especially interesting to me then.” As chief procurement officer, Mr Tng together with his team are responsible for sourcing products locally and from all over the world for NTUC FairPrice Group. The time spent interacting with his customers over the cashier counter honed his skills at identifying trends and demands, a valuable asset for him in the department. “I understood what sells and what doesn’t.” He continues: “If you get the right product, you will meet the customers’ needs. And they will be satisfied.”

Amid the supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Tng and his team were swamped ensuring essentials, which ran the gamut from eggs to toilet paper, remained on the shelves. Thanks to the procurement team’s efforts, antigen rapid test kits were also brought in and retailed at lower prices for the public. “I was able to influence a change as a co-operator.”

In a society where market competition is rampant, Mr Tng is cognisant that the retailer’s mission to moderate the cost of living and keep daily essentials within reach for Singaporeans can be a tall order. “Anyone can come in and undercut us, and it’s completely fine,” Mr Tng explains. “It takes many people from many departments to keep essentials affordable.”

Today, the retailer remains laser focused on benchmarking the prices of its products, and closely monitors a basket of 500 essential items - such as tissue paper and eggs - to ensure they remain within reach for Singaporeans. Members who patronise the retailer can also earn loyalty points, which can be redeemed to offset their grocery purchases.

The co-operative makes consistent and conscious efforts to ensure that it caters to all in Singapore, especially the vulnerable in the community. FairPrice Group’s range of over 2,000 Own Brands products are priced at least 10-20% lower than other comparable carriers. FairPrice Group is also known to dole out campaigns and discount schemes that help its customers stretch their dollars too.

Besides being a chief procurement officer, Mr Tng also wears the hat of the chairperson for SNCF’s executive council. Mr Tng, who was elected for the role at the 15th Triennial General Assembly in 2023, is no stranger to being a member of the board. He has been serving the movement since 2014.

Tasked to lead the Singapore Co-operative Movement forward and working alongside stakeholders—including MCCY, RCS, and the Central Co-operative Fund Committee—to do so, Mr Tng is quick to point out the storied history behind the movement.

“The first co-operative was formed in 1925. The movement is almost a century old. And co-operatives have been impacting lives,” he says, visibly excited. Credit co-operatives, such as the Singapore Government Staff Credit Co-operative, Singapore Statutory Boards Employees’ Co-operative and Citiport Co-operative, were among the first to be set up and they offered workers an alternative to illegal moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates back then, he shares.

“Co-operatives have weathered through the highs and lows for the past 100 years. The last 100 years have been such a journey, and this shows that they are resilient,” Mr Tng opines. “The movement is still going strong.”

While discussing his plans for the movement, Mr Tng divulges that he enjoys catching up with folks from different co-operatives. Seeing how different co-operatives empower different communities can be a heartwarming affair, he says. Though, this cannot be done without acknowledging the folks moving the needle for the betterment of their members. “These are co-operative leaders who believe in change. Change that is necessary to combat modern day challenges, to alleviate a woe, and ultimately to benefit their members and meet their needs,” Mr Tng says.

“The work has been cut out for us,” Mr Tng laughs, recognising the gargantuan task of leadership. For a start, the board needs to understand the aspirations and challenges co-operatives face on the ground before working closely with the rest to enact change, he says. On a personal level, however, Mr Tng is keen to nurture the next batch of leaders who could lead the movement. “(Grooming talents) has become a purpose in my life,” he says. “I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to perform and be nurtured by my predecessors.”

Mr Tng, who was recently appointed as the President of the Group CEO’s Office at FairPrice Group – a role in which he manages the business’ key stakeholder relationships – adds: “Co-operatives have become so important for residents in Singapore. I’d like to think it’s the social mission that brings people, from members to young employees to even customers, all together.”

Faces of Co-operator is a seasonal column featuring the stories behind co-operative employees and members. Here, we featured Mr Tng Ah Yiam of NTUC FairPrice Co-operative. NTUC FairPrice is part of the FairPrice Group. 

Established in 2019, FairPrice Group comprises four main social enterprises: NTUC FairPrice, NTUC Foodfare, Kopitiam, and NTUC Link. 

By Sng Ler Jun

If you haven't already, follow SNCF at Click here to sign up to be a co-operative in Singapore or sign up for our newsletter.

Who we are

SNCF is the apex body of Singapore’s Co-operative Movement, and secretariat of the Central Co-operative Fund (CCF). Formed in 1980 with the aim of championing Singapore’s Co-operative Movement, the apex body represents majority of co-operative members in Singapore through its affiliated co-operatives.