By Sng Ler Jun
Co-operatives struggling to understand what Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts mean to them will stand to gain an upper hand at this year’s Annual Co-operative Leaders’ Conference (ACLC). The annual flagship conference will take place from 15 to 18 October, and keynote speakers will cover topics surrounding sustainability.
“Sustainability is at the core of what co-operatives do,” proclaims Prof Ang Hak Seng, director for the Centre of Excellence for Social Good at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. His keynote address at ACLC 2023 will share insights on how co-ops can weave sustainability messaging into their operations as well as debunk myths around it.
He had shared that co-operatives could consider redesigning existing work processes and operations to be more sustainable. Some co-ops may even consider shifting into the burgeoning green market. “Green loans offered by banks could be potentially something replicated by credit co-operatives,” Prof Ang, who was a former chairman of credit co-operative Singapore Police Co-operative, added.
Member buy-ins to sustainability and having members taking ownership would be necessary for co-operatives seeking a stake in the green agenda in the long run. “Co-operatives are, after all, businesses for the members, by the members, and with the members.”
Having been an advocate for co-operatives, charities, and other social enterprises, Prof Ang’s impressive portfolio span across different areas of social good, including having stints at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the Registry of Co-operative Societies and Mutual Benefit Organisations, People’s Association, Health Promotion Board and the Singapore Police Force.
He adds: “We are built for mass ownership. There is a lot of potential to tap on within co-ops.”
Read our exclusive interview with him here.
Sng Ler Jun: Prof Ang, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. For starters, can you share a memorable occasion of you interacting with co-ops in Singapore?
Prof Ang Hak Seng: I have been in the co-operative sector for almost 30 years, where I was first a member of the Singapore Police Co-operative Society and eventually served as its Chairman from 2004 to 2014. I recall seeing our membership base growing exponentially by almost 30% and our assets by 100%, from SGD $100 to $200 million. I also fondly recall teaching our members the value of prudency and giving out bursary awards to our members’ children too. It was encouraging and enlightening to see the positive impacts co-ops have on the daily lives of our members.
Ler Jun: You were formerly the Commissioner of Charities and Executive Director, Registry of Co-operative Societies (RCS) and Mutual Benefit Organisations. Considering how co-operatives and social enterprises focus on doing good and doing well, how would you differentiate one from the other? What sets them apart, and what gels them together?
Prof Ang: All businesses, which includes co-operatives, lie on a spectrum in the professional world. At one end of the spectrum, we have for-profit organisations; these are your corporate businesses. On the other end, we have non-profit organisations, which includes charities. Co-ops stand smack in the middle; we make a profit, and these profits go back to our members. That is what makes co-ops so special. Co-ops position themselves for the greater good and for a large membership base of people.
Ler Jun: While there are many co-ops in Singapore, few still know of their existence. Those who do call the model an archaic one.
Prof Ang: The co-operative structure has indeed been around for a long time. However, despite being a long-standing model, the co-operative structure is still relevant in the current landscape. Let me allude to Singapore’s newest aspiration: our new social compact. The social compact is a shared understanding of how we relate to each other, our roles, and responsibilities for the nation. The key to this new social compact is for you, by you and with you, which is the same model co-operatives operate on. This idea of co-creation is unique to co-operatives as it is a structure that enables ownership by the masses. Therefore, the co-operative structure continues to be even more relevant in today’s context.
Ler Jun: The theme for Annual Co-operative Leaders’ Conference 2023 is “Running Sustainable Businesses”. We are excited to hear you share your insights on sustainability. What can participants look forward to your sharing this year?
Prof Ang: Sustainability has been a long running concept, especially amongst corporates. I will be explaining the context on what it means for co-ops to be sustainable, dispelling some myths surrounding sustainability, and how the execution on sustainability can look like in co-ops. Participants can expect to learn about simple yet swift steps that they can take to embark on their sustainability journey.
Ler Jun: Where do you think co-ops are in the whole grand scheme of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts then?
Prof Ang: I want to start off by pointing out that co-ops have already started on doing ESG as it is innate in the co-op's DNA, specifically in terms of the “social” pillar of ESG. As co-ops are built by the members, for the members, and with the members, co-ops are established to ensure that members take ownership and that they have influence over the direction of the organisation. However, there are aspects of ESG that co-ops can develop more, such as the “environment” pillar of ESG, as currently, many environmental initiatives by co-ops are ad-hoc in nature. To create greater and sustained positive environmental impact, co-ops should examine their current environmental initiatives, convert some to be done on a more permanent basis, and redesign existing work processes.
Ler Jun: Why do you think co-ops are hesitant about embracing ESG?
Prof Ang: A big reason is that co-ops may be intimidated by certain myths regarding sustainability and ESG. For instance, some may think that embracing ESG is an expensive effort. However, ESG need not necessarily be expensive as co-ops can start with simple and low-cost practices before moving on to more resource-intensive steps. Examples of such practices would include reducing electricity and water consumption by 5%. Another common myth is that co-op members do not care about ESG, but the reality is that many members do care deeply about ESG! Engaging members in the journey of ESG is critical for a successful sustainability movement amongst co-ops.
Ler Jun: So what can co-ops do to kickstart their sustainability journey?
Prof Ang: Think big, start small, but act fast. The art is to strategise which low-hanging fruits to harvest while keeping in mind the long-term sustainability goals of the organisation as well as the direction the co-op ecosystem is headed to. To think big, co-ops need to have a clear understanding about what is most important to their stakeholders and to work on those aspects of ESG first. To start small, co-ops need to know the aspects of sustainability that would achieve the 80/20 rule and hence, determine and achieve the low-laying fruits. To act fast, co-ops will need understand that sustainability is an urgent matter as highlighted by PM Lee on sustainability in his 2019 National Day Rally, “Everything else must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation.” To walk the journey with the co-operatives, SUSS will be offering relevant courses in sustainability and co-ops can tap on grants offered by both the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment and the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth for co-ops to kickstart their sustainability journey.
Ler Jun: What do you see the roles SNCF and RCS will be playing in the future?
Prof Ang: As enablers, SNCF will play a sector development role similar to the Economic Development Board (EDB) where they will empower co-ops to do good, and to do it well. RCS will continue to help co-ops to do right. Good governance is after all, imperative. Only when these two hands clap, then co-ops can do good, do well, and do right.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Editorial assistant: Tanya Ee