Were Minister Josephine Teo’s comments on formula milk insensitive?

By May 15, 2017Current

TL;DR – Did she sound condescending and dismissive?

Infant formula milk has been in the news recently. Over the last 10 years, the price of formula milk has increased by 121%. Not only that, formula milk prices in Singapore were higher than most benchmarked economies. This is the comparison of formula milk prices using purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted exchange rates:

Comparison of formula milk prices using PPP adjusted exchange rates. Source

PPP-adjusted prices are derived using Economy Watch 2014 Implied PPP Conversion Rate, taken from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). PPP is a theory in economics that approximates the total adjustment that must be made on the currency exchange rate between countries that allows the exchange to be equal to the purchasing power of each country’s currency.

As you can see, Singapore’s prices are higher than the average, and only lower than those in China, India and Indonesia. The relatively higher prices of formula milk is cause for concern. Will the children of lower income families suffer because they can’t afford formula milk? It is an issue that is so serious that even Parliament discussed it.

Enter Minister Josephine Teo

As the minister in charge of population matters, it probably came as no surprise that Minister Josephine Teo weighed in on the issue:


Minister Teo spoke of her own experience as a mother. She said:

“For my own journey, I concluded that milk is milk, however fancy the marketing. As long as AVA approves its import, the milk is good enough. I had no reason to pay more and would buy whatever was cheapest or on sale. The kids didn’t always like adjusting but did so anyway. That’s what I found great about kids – they adjust given time and encouragement”

Did Minister Teo sound condescending and dismissive?

Some people took offence with the way Minister Teo put her point across. They felt that she was being condescending. She sounded like she’s making light of the concerns of parents who choose to buy formula milk that is more expensive. It’s as if she’s saying that they are making their decisions irrationally and without sound basis.

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Does Minister Teo not understand the heart of a mother? Does she not understand that every mother wants to give the best to their children, regardless the cost? Can she not empathise with the struggle that mothers of low-income families go through? They are willing to scrimp and save so that they can buy what they think is better formula milk, hoping that will provide their children with a better start.

How can Minister Teo be so dismissive of the desire of those mothers? Just because (she says) she’s willing to buy the cheapest milk, does that mean that all mothers must do the same? If Minister Teo really thought that way, then she is really condescending.

Focus all wrong

We don’t know if Minister Teo is indeed a condescending person who isn’t empathetic; we don’t have enough interactions with her to tell. But we doubt it, since there had been many times in the past she was understanding and empathetic about us Singaporeans’ woes and worries. And let’s put it on record that some of us from the team really do like Minister Teo. But her latest message about formula milk does come across that way. And that’s because the last paragraph of her post shifted the focus completely. Yup, you could say she hijacked her own post!

Before the last paragraph, Minister Teo wrote about two things. First, the reasons that led to the rise in prices of formula milk. Second, that we should encourage breastfeeding. Those points are actually very good points, which few, if any, people would find fault with.

Rise in marketing expenditure

First, the reasons that led to the rise in prices of formula milk. Minister Teo mentioned the heavy investments in aggressive marketing and advertising activities. Indeed, the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) found that total marketing expenditure by all major manufacturers increased by 42.4% between 2010 and 2014.

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A report in Lianhe Zaobao cited industry insiders who revealed the efforts formula milk companies take to incentivise doctors to promote their brands. These incentives include luxurious holidays, and branded goods. As a result, some doctors promote formula milk not based on its nutritional value but based on the incentives that they get.

If there is any veracity in the allegations in the report in Lianhe Zaobao, then those doctors should be called out. They should be charged for corruption and punished as harshly as the law allows. It’s because of the greed of those doctors that resulted, in part, in the rise of the prices of formula milk.

Encouraging breastfeeding and improving education

Minister Teo’s second point is about encouraging breastfeeding. She said:

“Actually, breastmilk is best and both the Health Promotion Board, Singapore and World Health Organization (WHO) encourage mothers to breastfeed for at least 12 months. However, for parents who need to supplement with formula, all brands sold in Singapore, regardless of price, provide enough nutrition for babies to grow healthily. After the child turns one, milk powder isn’t even needed. Fresh cow’s milk, as part of a balanced diet, works well enough.”

It is indeed important for Singapore, as a society, to be more conducive for mothers to breastfeed. We need our workplaces and public spaces to carve out nursing rooms for breastfeeding mothers, and we need more understanding and empathy from employers and co-workers towards breastfeeding mothers. Did you know funding is available for building owners and employers to create a more pro-family environment?

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And yes, certainly more can be done to educate Singaporeans about the nutritional value of different brands of formula milk.

For instance, did you know that the “IQ” you see on some formula milk cans does’t mean intelligence quotient? It means “intestinal quality”. And seriously, on what basis do formula milk companies conclude that their milk can improve brain development? Is there any evidence that conclusively proof that babies who drink formula milk that is more expensive grow up stronger, smarter, and/or healthier? Probably not.


Would have been fine if she didn’t add her own experience

And if she just stopped at this:

“Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), Health Promotion Board and Ministry of Health, Singapore will adjust guidelines and regulations on advertising, labelling and import of formula milk. Expect more public education and a bigger push for breastfeeding.”

Then it would be all fine. What value does that last paragraph add? Does Minister Teo really think that will make people more receptive to her message? This is almost as bad as the time she said that you don’t need much space to have sex.

Perhaps Minister Teo can consider using her SkillsFuture Credit on some public relations course. She can even jio Dr Koh Poh Koon along for the course. We think some of our politicians are in dire need of learning how to PR.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Anson Lim says:

    I wrote about this topic back in Jan 2017. I pointed out how one could save up to $1000 by switching away from Formula milk to Whole milk. It’s interesting that this whole buzz finally happened. Prices of formula are ridiculous!