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Co-operatives are essentially self-help; whether it is a consumer co-operative, thrift & loan or transport co-operative. You have people coming together to try and address some of these problems as a community.

Mr S R Nathan -
Singapore's 6th President

S R Nathan
Mr S R Nathan
Singapore's 6th President

When it comes to championing the co-operative mission, the late Mr S R Nathan, would not bat an eyelid to give his full support. After all, the Singapore’s 6th President himself had personally benefited from being a co-operative member and knew first-hand the good work of mutual help. Three times the Singapore Government Staff Credit Co-operative Society offered him a helping hand…in the form of low interest loans. The late Mr Nathan candidly shared:

“When I got married in 1958, I didn’t have enough money to get married. So I took a loan from the co-operative. The second time I borrowed money was to buy a house. The third was when I wanted to return a $200 monthly special allowance which I received over 10 months from the NTUC, I borrowed $2,000 from the co-operative to pay back NTUC.”

He continued: “When I needed money, I did not go to the banks. Unlike today, the banks then would never lend you money. Since you couldn’t get a loan or money overdraft from the bank, you had to keep your bank account in surplus all the time. Most of us joined the thrift and loan societies in the belief that if we needed financial help to tide us through, we could go to them. So we joined and when we needed to take out a loan, the sum borrowed would then be deducted from our salaries.”

In the October-December 2012 issue of the Co-operator, Mr Nathan talks about the evolution of the co-operative movement in Singapore and how it rose to the challenge of being relevant.

Having observed how co-operatives have evolved over the years, what do you think are some key lessons for co-operatives?

Co-operatives will continue to remain relevant because they are set up to address a particular social need. But while there may members who contribute to it, its management should be more professional to discourage any forms of manipulation and misappropriation.

We started a consumer co-operative in the early 50s during the Korean War. I remember there was an outlet which operated in Victoria Street. The co-operative bought items in bulk and sold them to co-operative members at very small margins. But some members from the lower income group would buy these items and sell them immediately to the shopkeeper for cash. This was one way for them to cash-in since the co-operative membership fee deduction was only due on their payday. The co-operative failed. Co-operatives should not be over-dependent on their member-owners who might not have the professional pre-requisites to run a sustainable co-operative enterprise.

So I think one of the lessons I have drawn from past experiences is that for a co-operative to succeed, there must be professional managerial support that runs the place as an enterprise. If we depend entirely on members, there is the danger of misappropriation of funds, manipulation by dominant individuals, or leaders lapsing into lethargy. Conversely, if we depend solely on the enthusiasm of the secretary or president, the co-operative will carry on, but without meaningful long-term development or progress.

How were Government Thrift and Loan Co-operatives organised in the past?

In the early days of PAP, housing was also very much in demand. The co-operatives were one means of funding private housing. The Thrift and Loan Co-operative provided funds while the Government encouraged the co-operatives to look for properties, develop them, and allow members to purchase housing and pay by instalments. There could have been other co-operatives, but as far as the Government co-operatives were concerned, these were like voluntary associations. Every year, they have a general meeting and elected their own committee.

In order for those who were leading the co-operative to remain in position, they were always able to mobilise the division four staff in large numbers to come to the general meetings and cast their votes during elections. These staff were the ones who were mostly in need. They found value in the membership and a sense of obligation to support the committee. This contrasted with other members who were quite indifferent. The group that led the co-operative largely maintained their positions. They were helped on by division four staff as well as disinterested, tepid members. That was the thrift and loan.

We must learn from the past and find a way to address the issues to develop relevant, professional and viable co-operatives.

What are some success stories – past and present?

The labour movement asked a question: ‘How do we sustain our members?’ This was where the idea of setting up co-operatives came about.

So we started with an insurance co-operative with Dr Goh Keng Swee’s persuasion and got somebody to help us start an insurance company when we knew nothing about it. NTUC Comfort was Devan Nair’s idea. At the time of the British withdrawal, we received some concessions on a fleet of taxis the British donated to us.

We also knew that shopkeepers traditionally raised prices with every rise in cost of living allowances. So one of the things Professor Thomas Harold Elliott thought of was having a consumer co-operative to benchmark basic essentials. What you normally buy from the shopkeeper, you should be able to do in bulk – whether rice, salt or sugar.

Since then, the co-operative movement and NTUC Co-operatives have advanced tremendously with good management. One reason for the success of NTUC Co-operatives is making provisions for a managerial element. You have your staff, you have a systematic setup, you did all the groundwork and this was presented to your members for endorsement. Unfortunately in some other cases, I am told some of the co-operative leaders were being paid substantial market bonuses, which I felt was contrary to the spirit of the co-operatives.

After Ong Teng Cheong came into the NTUC, we had resorts and so on. So out of this initial move to give to members something of value so that they would want to keep their links with the movement, came all these co-operatives like NTUC FairPrice, Income, Unity Healthcare, Eldercare, and so on.

The current credit Thrift and Loan society sees a worrying trend in younger workers mostly from lower-middle and middle incomes who have gotten into the habit of possessing multiple credit cards and living beyond their means. They cannot pay their credit card bills and incur high interest charges. What would you suggest?

The co-operative movement could explore setting up an agency which agrees to helping these individuals sort out their figures, on condition that they are working, are prepared to receive help and disclose their finances. People have their dignity; they may have already suffered but they need to be aware that such an avenue of help is available for them. They need to come forth and seek help, which they can do in private.

We have to address it that way to break the vicious cycle. And every month, the co-operative agency can perform check-offs to make the necessary deductions on their salaries before pay-outs. Otherwise, it will be unending. But to be fair, the deductions have to be reasonable since the person needs to have enough to live on as well.

It is something the movement can look into. With one or two good examples, word can get around. We can work it out. Individual co-operative societies can do it; the parent co-operative movement can help; and the bankruptcy office will have leads on relevant cases. Perhaps a kind of reserve bank can also be put aside to see how we can fund and investigate the extent of these problems.

With this thought-provoking suggestion, the late President displays the side of him that he is well-versed in the co-operative movement having personally experienced the benefits of co-operatives.

The article was first published in the Co-operator (October- December 2012 issue).

Learning Tips

  • Need to encourage people to come together and address society needs as a community
  • Develop relevant, professional and viable co-operatives

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