Is Singapore’s competition watchdog, a dog without teeth?

It has been announced that Singapore’s competition watchdog will be conducting a public feedback gathering exercise in relation to the proposed acquisition of kopitiam by NTUC Enterprise. While I am heartened that the competition watchdog has finally risen to action on this issue, I am disappointed that the watchdog did not take action sooner.

If the proposed acquisition does go ahead, NTUC Enterprise will have a virtual monopoly over food from raw to cooked in Singapore and while NTUC has pledged that it is only doing this to keep prices low, a monopoly would mean that it would be difficult for the consumer to ensure that NTUC lives up to its promise.

In the transportation sector, it would be noteworthy to point out that the competition watchdog intervened almost as soon as Grab announced its intention to acquire Uber Singapore. After its investigations, the Uber and Grab deal did go ahead although the duo were fined a total of approximately SGD 13million between them. In that case, did the public watchdog conduct a public feedback gathering exercise? While there was a survey conducted by Blackbox, was there an official one undertaken by the watchdog? If not, why not?

If the watchdog saw it fit to take action in the transportation sector, why is it any different when it comes to food? Surely, it is obvious that more Singaporeans utilise NTUC and Kopitiam as compared to Uber and Grab? Surely then, it is more imperative to act when it comes to the Kopitiam acquisition? Why is the watchdog seemingly dawdling when it comes to NTUC, calling for a public feedback exercise instead of taking prompt action?

The competition watchdog is supposed to be an independent body with the powers to prevent anti-competition behaviours across all sectors and all companies. It should therefore be seen to be impartial. The seemingly difference in treatment between Uber/Grab and NTUC/Kopitiam could unwittingly give the impression that the watchdog is hesitant to take action against government-linked companies even if that is not the intention?

It is plain to see that NTUC Enterprise would have a significant market share if it acquires kopitiam and given the numbers of Singaporeans who eat in food courts, it is par for the course that there is a strong case for anti-competition behaviour in this case. Does the watchdog really need a public consultation to state the obvious?

Further, the whole point of a watchdog is to prevent mergers and acquisitions that can create monopolies. Uber and Grab’s merger in Singapore creates precisely that – a monopoly. Yet it was allowed to go ahead after a fine. For such a huge merger, SGD13million could simply be written off as the cost of doing business in Singapore with a monopoly still being created.

The whole point of a watchdog is independence and rigour. Is our competition watchdog a dog without teeth?