The article was first published in the Co-operator (October- December 2010 issue).

Co-operatives have a major role to play in helping our society to be more cohesive, resilient and self-reliant. The challenge for the Co-operative Movement is to remain relevant to society today and make an impact on the daily lives of the individual members and the community at large.
- Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon

Co-operatives in Singapore need to identify areas of priority, bearing in mind the nation’s social challenges, while the Government plays its role to support these entities with a social mission.

These aspirations for the local Co-operative Movement are mooted by then Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who has had a long history of involvement with co-operatives.

Mrs Yu Foo 1Mrs Yu-Foo, one of Singapore’s second-generation women Members of Parliament (MPs), is a keen supporter of the Co-operative Movement, having been on the boards of various co-operatives. During her 25 years of close affinity with SNCF, she served wholeheartedly on its Board of Trustees, and later chaired the Board and the Central Co-operative Fund (CCF) Committee. In recognition of her important contributions to the growth and development of the Singapore Co-operative Movement, the Rochdale Medal was conferred on Mrs Yu-Foo by SNCF in 1997.

In an interview with Co-operator, she says: “Co-operatives have a major role to play in helping our society to be more cohesive, resilient and self-reliant. The challenge for the Co-operative Movement is to remain relevant to society today and make an impact on the daily lives of the individual members and the community at large.”

She identifies a potential area of growth for co-operatives as providing services to the elderly. Singapore has one of the fastest ageing populations in Southeast Asia.

Mrs Yu-Foo outlines some of the needs of Singapore’s ageing population – active ageing and employment, living arrangements and healthcare. In addition, there is a need to train caregivers and the young on how to look after their parents, and to generally raise awareness in this area. Co-operatives can reach out to the elderly and provide tremendous value-add by offering services that cater to the needs of this sector of our community.

NTUC FairPrice Co-operative, the nation’s trusted co-operative supermarket retailer, is an example of a co-operative that has been reaching out to the elderly by providing elder-friendly incentives. Since 2002, this Co-operative has been extending a 2% discount to senior shoppers aged 60 years and above when they shop on Tuesdays. This is to provide financial relief for senior citizens, who are no longer working and earning an income. It also serves to encourage senior citizens to shop for the family and promotes an active lifestyle for seniors as well as cohesive family bonding. On average, about 40,000 senior citizens enjoy this discount every Tuesday at FairPrice stores.

“Co-operatives can work with the Government to identify the needs of the elderly community and provide services to meet their needs,” she adds.

Mrs Yu-Foo also observes that NTUC First Campus Co-operative, formerly known as NTUC Childcare, has had great impact. And there are increasing efforts in this area to provide better support to working parents.

“Since August 2008, MCYS has been facilitating the development of 200 more child care centres, which will add 20,000 more child care places by March 2013. There are now close to 850 child care centres in Singapore.”

Mrs Yu Foo highlights the need for SNCF to support and develop the co-operatives.

“SNCF plays an increasingly important role amidst all the challenges facing the Co-operative Movement. It is especially critical that SNCF supports the co-operatives and develops their capabilities to not only adapt to the new regulatory requirements, but also to ensure the co-operative members’ interests are looked after.”

Mrs Yu-Foo had joined NTUC to be involved in the setting up of co-operatives – which one of her ex-lecturers had described as “a bloodless revolution” – but was instead assigned to handle industrial relations. She realised her wish later in her career when she was personally involved in the setting up of NTUC Childcare (as it was called then) and NTUC Foodfare Co-operative.

As a former Vice Chairman of NTUC Insurance (NTUC Income Co-operative), board member of NTUC FairPrice Co-operative, and Chairperson of NTUC Childcare, she participated actively in their development and witnessed first-hand how social enterprises, such as these NTUC co-operatives, delivered good business results and at the same time, brought about positive social outcomes by addressing several social needs – “doing well, doing good”.

Another milestone of the Singapore Co-operative Movement was the passing of the Co-operative Societies (Amendment) Act in September 2008, to further strengthen co-op governance, and to subject credit co-operatives to a higher level of regulatory supervision and prudence. Mrs Yu-Foo notes that with good governance, credit co-operatives can continue to play an important social role of encouraging their members to save and providing loans to those in need of financial assistance.

As co-operatives remain true to their social purpose, another important task lies ahead for the Co-operative Movement: Attracting more talents as human capital is a key enabler for success. For the business of co-operatives to be sustainable, Mrs Yu Foo is of the view that “professionals can help to run co-operatives as volunteers and as employees. But they must be professionals with just as much passion as the social entrepreneurs themselves. This is because co-operatives also need the best to grow and succeed. Brain power and ideas can be borrowed by inviting professionals and successful entrepreneurs to sit on the boards of co-operatives.”

She reminisces: “There have been many successful people in the past who have helped in developing co-operatives and seen them flourish – such as Mr Baey Lian Peck, Mr Chin Harn Tong, the late Professor Tom Elliot, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mr Sat Pal Khattar, Mr Lim Ho Seng, Dr Aline Wong and many others. What we need is more of such people to step forward to contribute to the co-operative cause.”

Of course, in line with the co-operative way of talent acquisition and retention, SNCF and co-operatives should “raise awareness of the co-operative principles through their activities, so as to motivate talents, who share the Movement’s desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives, to join as fellow co-operators and/or volunteers.”

Learning Tips

  • Co-operatives are encouraged to provide goods and services to meet the needs of the elderly community.
  • Through good governance, credit co-operatives can continue to play a social role of encouraging members to save and providing loans when members need financial help.
  • Co-operatives should involve professionals who are passionate about making a positive difference to help run co-operatives.
  • Co-operatives can borrow brain power and ideas, by tapping on the experience and expertise of professionals and successful entrepreneurs.