More eating rice, with more choices now (The Straits Times)

Many find it healthier to eat rice and importers are offering more varieties

PEOPLE in Singapore are eating more rice, and grains from Malaysia, Cambodia and Pakistan are seeing a huge growth in demand.

Latest figures from IE Singapore show that 361,930 tonnes of rice were imported in 2011, rising steadily to hit 498,633 tonnes last year, or a rise of 38 per cent.

Importers point to growing awareness of healthy eating as the main reason for the increase.

“It’s healthier to eat rice… or rice noodles like bee hoon than, say, fast food,” said Mr Lim Ek Kwong, operations manager of major rice importer See Hoy Chan.

The recent influx of foreigners from rice-eating nations such as India and China may also have fuelled the demand, said importers. There are also more types of rice available now.

The past few years had seen a change in the main supply source. In 2013, India, for the first time, overtook Thailand – famous for its premium grade jasmine rice – as the biggest rice supplier to Singapore. Last year, 37.4 per cent of the total rice imports came from India, and 32.3 per cent were from Thailand. Vietnam (22.6 per cent) took the No. 3 spot.

Other countries that supply rice to Singapore include Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Pakistan. While they accounted for less than 5 per cent of the total rice imports last year, three of them saw huge growth increases.

Demand for rice from Malaysia and Cambodia jumped 11 times and nine times respectively, while demand for Pakistani rice tripled.

Rice importers said the quality of non-Thai rice has improved over the years. They “have improved their polishing and dehusking technology”, said Mr Lim.

Prices also play a part. At FairPrice supermarkets, for instance, a 10kg bag of housebrand jasmine fragrant rice from Vietnam costs $15.50 while a similar bag of housebrand Thai fragrant rice and white rice blend costs $18.60. About 70 per cent of rice sold at FairPrice is from Thailand, down from 95 per cent in 2007.

Mr Lim said restaurants have turned to white rice from Vietnam, Cambodia and India, as they cost less than the Thai variety.

Mr Andrew Tan, chairman of the Singapore General Rice Importers Association, said the shift to non-Thai rice began in 2011. That year, the Thai government started buying rice from farmers at above-market rates, building a stockpile at home. This reduced the amount of rice available for export and led to higher prices.

People are also eating more rice because there are now more varieties available. Mrs Mui-Kok Kah Wei, FairPrice’s senior director of purchasing and merchandising, said the supermarket chain’s range now includes varieties like calrose, red unpolished rice and multi-grain rice.

Basmati and ponni rice are also gaining popularity. Telemarketer Amutha Chetty, 44, said her family eats only ponni rice from India. “We used to eat some Thai rice but we don’t anymore. (It is) more expensive.”

But teacher Sarah Lim, 53, is sticking to her Thai rice. “It is so ingrained in me that Thai rice is better… I won’t change to rice from elsewhere even if it is cheaper,” she said.