(Delivered in Parliament on 3 Feb 2020)
Mr Speaker sir, the Geographical Indications or GI Amendment Bill seeks to clarify a number of technical points relating to the GI Act of 2014, which came into force in 2019. In particular, it prescribes how the act should be interpreted in respect of variants of a GI, as well as clarifying the legal procedure by which an appellant can seek to qualify or limit the scope of the rights conferred by the registration of a GI. Through bringing about these clarifications, the Bill is a significant step in the right direction.
I have a few questions and suggestions for the Minister in respect of this Bill. Before I raise these, I would like to declare my interest as the CEO of a research consultancy that undertakes work in the agri-food and processed food and beverage space, among other product categories.
GIs are terms which are used to inform consumers that a product, mostly food and drink, comes from a particular place. The GI Act of 2014 established a new system of registration in Singapore to improve the certainty of protection given to GIs with effect from 1 April 2019.
This had been part of Singapore’s compliance with the Singapore-European union Free Trade Agreement, where some 100 applications have been protected under the GI Act.
Perhaps the most famous example of a GI is champagne. Other examples are Tennessee whisky, Pinggu peaches, Darjeeling tea and Parmesan cheese. Essentially GIs must identify goods where the qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin.
GIs helps consumers gain assurance that the products they are buying embody the geographically-grounded characteristics embodied in the product name.
My first question would be – as a Singaporean consumer purchasing a product where a GI has been registered in Singapore, how can they obtain some degree of assurance that the product they are purchasing is a genuine GI product, as it were, rather than a product from a different region that has usurped the name protected under the registered GI?
No doubt, once the GIs are registered, producers and traders of the GI products will be able to request customs authorities to “detain suspected infringing goods which are imported into or exported from Singapore”, as IPOS declared in a media report. But the ability of producers and traders of GI products to enforce their rights may be uneven.
Can IPOS consider working with GI rights holders, industry associations and other stake-holders to create an easy-to-use directory, entirely funded by GI rights holders, which would list legitimate products bearing the GI by brand, product type and retailer? Industry stakeholders would be strongly incentivised to fund such a directory.
Next, GIs represent an opportunity for local farming and food processing entrepreneurs to brand Singaporean products for enhanced competitiveness in export markets, while also potentially contributing to the tourist experience for inbound tourists into Singapore, who may seek good-quality local food. In fact, it is not uncommon for tourist authorities to promote local foodstuffs and where they can be obtained.
As Stephane Passeri, from the FAO Asia office said, as quoted in a media report by Food Navigator Asia:
“As the industry moves towards globalization and bringing local products to the world, local or ethnic products are increasingly becoming a target for GIs as these are often the most popularly-searched by tourists…it is becoming increasingly important to differentiate your product from the pack. The time for uniformity in F&B is gone and GIs are going to be a big contributor to this.”
In this context, I have two other questions.
Firstly, how many applications have been made for local Geographic Indications to date? According to the same media report I cited earlier, dated August last year, 140 GI applications had been made to IPOS since the GI registry had been opened in April last year but it is unclear how many are for local GIs.
Secondly, will the government consider working with local farming and food processing entrepreneurs to support their efforts to register GIs? Developing Singaporean GIs could be an avenue to boost the economic and job creation potential of the local food industry.