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Overview of Co-operative Movement in Singapore

The co-operative concept was introduced in Singapore as early as 1924 with the passing of the Straits Settlement Co-operative Societies Ordinance. Credit co-operatives, then known as Thrift and Loan societies, were introduced in the 1920s as an alternative source of funds to financial institutions or moneylenders for workers to depend upon for financial relief in times of need.

Co-operatives in Singapore have evolved over the past nine decades to meet new challenges of society. They continue to remain relevant, forming part of the social safety net as they operate on the principles of self-help and mutual assistance to address the social and economic needs of their community. Co-operatives are involved in many sectors - in supermarkets, childcare, eldercare, healthcare, education and training, financial services, security and food.

Today, there are 84 registered co-operative societies in Singapore, serving close to 1.47 million individuals1 which is more than one-third of Singapore’s resident population2. Co-operatives are classified into three categories. The Consumer and Services Co-operatives provide goods and services to their members, some of which have become household names. These co-operatives are business driven and anchored by a social mission to help residents in Singapore through moderating the cost of living or targeted services. For instance, the co-operatives under the labour movement, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), deliver an integrated suite of services to meet specific needs of people in Singapore at every stage of their lifecycle - pre-schoolers; school-going children; working adults; and senior citizens, as well as the more general needs across the board. They are NTUC FairPrice Co-operative Limited (NTUC FairPrice), NTUC Income Co-operative Limited (NTUC Income) , NTUC First Campus Co-operative Limited (NTUC First Campus), NTUC Foodfare Co-operative Limited (NTUC Foodfare), NTUC Health Co-operative Limited (NTUC Health), and NTUC LearningHub Co-operative Limited (NTUC LearningHub).

Credit Co-operatives provide attractive financial rates and terms to members within a pre-existing common bond of association or same community while Campus Co-operatives and coop clubs operate in campuses of secondary schools, junior colleges, polytechnics and universities. They create opportunities and hands-on business skills practicum for students to understand and embrace co-operative values.

Close to 80% of the co-operatives and more than 99% of the membership are affiliated to the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF). Established in 1980, SNCF is the apex organisation for the Co-operative Movement which is also the largest grassroots movement in Singapore. SNCF seeks to promote and develop co-operatives as sustainable enterprises that address social and economic needs through the principle of self and mutual help so as to foster a more resilient society. SNCF offers services such as training, shared services, Central Co-operative Fund grants including scholarships, and networking opportunities. It also serves as the collective voice representing the co-operative movement on local and international platforms. SNCF advocates for the movement and works closely with the Registry of Co-operative Societies (the Registry) in its effort to promote and develop the movement whilst the Registry regulates the movement. SNCF is an affiliate of the International Co-operative Alliance, the World Council of Credit Unions, and the Asian Council of Credit Unions. It enjoys co-operative relationships with international and regional bodies like the International Labour Organisation, and the United Nations.

Co-operatives in Singapore are regulated by the Registry under the Co-operative Societies Act (Chapter 62) and Co-operative Societies Rules 2009, so as to protect members’ interests. The Registry falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

 

Co-operatives Contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals

With sustainable development and social mission at the core, co-operatives in Singapore play a relevant and important role in realising sustainable development goals.

• Eradicating Poverty and Hunger

In 2016, co-operatives provide job opportunities for more than 18,000 people in Singapore, which is an increase of 45% from 20103, contributing to the progress in reducing poverty. They also help members to improve their own lives. For instance, surpluses of the co-operatives are ploughed back to the members with value-added benefits such as dividends, educational awards, study grants and bursaries which include overseas educational and recreational trips, and healthcare services.

Sdg Goal1Co-operatives also contribute to poverty alleviation through the provision of credit and non-credit services. Credit Co-operatives facilitate members’ access to monetary loans, which help individuals avoid permanent indebtedness, and eradicate the need to borrow from loan sharks or legal and illegal money lenders during difficult financial times. Similarly, non-credit co-operatives like NTUC Co-operatives through their various businesses, which include the provision of daily essentials (supermarkets), cooked food (food courts, hawker centres etc.), pre-school education, adult learning, insurance, senior care, dental clinics and family medicine clinic, address societal concerns about the cost of living, ageing issues, healthcare costs and social mobility. In doing so, they improve lives holistically by tackling poverty, reducing inequalities, providing quality education, and promoting good health and well-being. Their businesses also enable them to offer decent work for economic growth, and to implement industry innovation and infrastructure4.

Take for an example NTUC FairPrice. In fulfilling its social mission to moderate the cost of living, NTUC FairPrice helps ensure price stabilisation especially during crises5. It intervened to moderate vegetable prices and ensure adequate supplies during the SARS period in 2003. In 2004 during the Asian bird flu crisis which led to import ban on eggs from Malaysia, it brought in eggs from multiple countries to stabilise the price of eggs and even lowered the price after the lift of the import ban. NTUC FairPrice was also the first organisation in Singapore to reduce the price of rice during the global rice crisis in 2008. In 2013, when the demand for N95 masks outstripped supply during the haze period, NTUC FairPrice and NTUC Health brought in these masks to benchmark prices so as to curb profiteering. Such efforts helped to moderate the cost of living and alleviate the lives of Singapore residents.

Sdg Goal2 1Similarly, NTUC Foodfare makes tasty cooked food affordable and accessible to the budget-conscious and low-income through the Rice Garden stalls. Rice Garden, a social outreach programme initiated by NTUC Foodfare during the financial crisis in 2009, provides affordable quality local fare to the public. Comcare cardholders (low-income individuals and families) can have a tasty and substantial rice meal comprising two vegetables and one meat at only S$1.50. Senior citizens, students, National Servicemen and Union members need to pay only S$2.00 and S$2.50 at hawker centres and coffee shops respectively, while all other patrons pay a very reasonable price of S$2.70/S$3.00. From its first pilot stall in Aljunied, Rice Garden is finding its way into more heartlands of Singapore with a total of 34 Rice Garden stalls island-wide today6.

• Good Health & Well Being

Sdg Goal3Co-operatives in Singapore also contributes to the provision of healthcare. For instance, NTUC Health provides an integrated suite of services to meet the growing needs of families and their dependents. In addition to dental clinics and a family medicine clinic, NTUC Health also has one of the most comprehensive range of eldercare services in Singapore. These include facilities such as senior day care centres, nursing homes, senior activity and wellness centres, as well as a sheltered/senior group home. It also runs services such as home care and community support for vulnerable seniors. NTUC Health through its outreach programme offers free health and dental checks for vulnerable groups, and public education on healthcare and eldercare issues. Its team of dedicated doctors, dentists and care professionals supports more than 300,000 people in Singapore every month7.

Another co-operative, The Good Life Co-operative Limited (Good Life), with its network of doctors who share its vision of evidence-based ethical care, provides personalised health care and health coaching to members. To promote health and wellness on a larger scale, Good Life engages the general public through activities such as public forums to boost their health literacy and educate them about preventive care.

Co-operatives also support members in financing healthcare. For instance, TCC Credit Co-operative Limited (TCC), AUPE Credit Co-operative Limited (AUPE), Singapore Government Staff Credit Co-operative Society Limited (SGS) and Customs Credit Co-operative Society Limited (Customs Credit), offer members hospitalisation benefits. In addition to hospitalisation reimbursement for members, Union of Telecoms Employees of Singapore has a medical assistance scheme for those suffering from chronic conditions. The Citiport Credit Co-operative Limited provides grant for prolonged sickness. NTUC Income provides affordable insurance suited to the needs of the elderly, and insurance coverage for the medical expenses (due to accident and infectious diseases) of people with Autism or Down syndrome.

Other co-operatives like Silver Horizon Travel Co-operative Limited (Silver Horizon), Silver Caregivers Co-operative Limited (Silver Caregivers), and Runninghour Co-operative Limited (Runninghour) offer services supporting well-being and in particular, help enrich the lives of the silver generation. Established in 2012 by seniors for other seniors, Silver Horizon promotes active living and learning through customised travel programmes that cater to the needs of the elderly. It also organises charity overseas trips for those who have never owned a passport, and such trips would be accompanied by members of Silver Horizon. Silver Caregivers, on the other hand, aims to better the quality of life of caregivers by offering a range of products and supported education services, and becomes a one-stop centre of information in caregiving roles in Singapore. It champions the cause of caregivers, especially the sandwiched group (i.e. caregivers who are not within the bottom 5% of the economic ladder), by empowering them with relevant holistic skill sets. Runninghour helps people with special needs to stay active, and build confidence through running and other forms of exercises. Its social mission is to promote integration of people with special needs like mildly intellectually challenged, physically challenged and visually challenged through running while ensuring its sustainability with a viable business model.

• Quality Education

Co-operatives also play a role in facilitating access to education by providing education awards, study grants and bursaries in addition to granting educational loans, which can help relieve the financial burden of a typical wage earner whose salary is their only source of income. Examples of such co-operatives include TCC, AUPE, SGS and Customs Credit.

Sdg Goal4Co-operatives such as the Industrial & Services Co-operative Society Limited (ISCOS) and NTUC Income have gone a step further. In 2011, ISCOS launched the Tuition Bursary scheme for its beneficiaries under the Fairy Godparent Programme. This programme helps a select group of children of former offenders from low-income families with weak academic grades in English and Mathematics to receive professional tuition. It also helped provide a conducive study environment by installing physical study areas in the homes of needy school-going children through its Learning Environment Assistance Project in 2015. This ongoing initiative has benefitted 90 families to date. Each beneficiary would receive a bookstore voucher to purchase their stationary supplies. ISCOS case workers also engage parents to educate them on the purpose of maintaining a conducive home study environment for their children8.

Similarly, NTUC Income launched the Future Development Programme in 2015 to fund needy students studying in the Institute of Technical Education and polytechnics. Beyond helping with their school fees, the bursary funding is designed to assist with the living expenses of these students so that they have more time to concentrate on their education. It also offers students opportunities to enhance their financial literacy as well as personal and career development9. NTUC Income also introduced Income Family Micro-Insurance and Savings Scheme to cover eligible families with children registered at NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool and families receiving financial assistance from the Ministry of Education’s Financial Assistance Scheme for primary schools to help the family cope financially in the unfortunate event of death or total and permanent disability of a parent or guardian.

SNCF, as the apex body, offers a merit based SNCF Co-operative Scholarship to undergraduate students with the aim to nurture the youth to make a difference to society through the co-operative movement. SNCF scholars are required to do internship at a co-operative during annual vacations and to serve out their bond after graduation. They continue to contribute to the co-operative movement after their bond period.

Co-operatives also contribute to quality education by setting up their own schools. For instance, NTUC First Campus aims to provide quality and affordable early childhood care and education services to working parents, so that every child will receive quality education regardless of their family’s social/economic status or financial situation. Its main pre-school brand, My First Skool, which currently has over 130 centres, aims to increase its childcare enrolment from 13,000 in 2016 to 20,000 by 202010. In 2008, NTUC First Campus started the Bright Horizons Fund, which has an IPC status, with the primary objective of providing funding to children from low-income families get access to quality pre-school education provided by My First Skool, despite family circumstances.

However, it is not only students who benefit from educational opportunities supported by co-operatives. NTUC LearningHub aims to enhance lifelong employability of working people through skills upgrading. It is one of the largest Continuous Education and Training provider offering a wide range of learning and training solutions for Singaporeans and organisations. Since 2004, NTUC LearningHub has achieved more than two million training places. It also supports the nation-wide SkillsFuture campaign to re-skill and up-skill the workforce, focusing on Infocomm Technology (ICT) and digital skillsets to better prepare employees for a fast-changing economy. In particular and in alignment with SNCF’s strategic goals to support the silver population, NTUC LearningHub strives to train more eldercarers and eldercare workers, and promote employability of Singapore’s ageing population.

Love Empowered Co-operative on the other hand supports children with learning difficulties. It provides services ranging from specialised academic tuition, training/awareness workshops for families, schools and workshops for children with perceived differences such as special needs and mental illness as well as befriending initiatives, outreach programmes, and opportunities for volunteering.

• Gender Equality

Sdg Goal5Co-operatives in Singapore also contribute towards gender equality by increasing women’s access to economic opportunities.

In 2016, women make up 71.6% of staff working in local co-operatives11. In addition, 51.1% of management staff are women12.

 

 

• Decent Work & Economic Growth

Co-operatives play a significant role in employment creation as well as promotion of equity and inclusion too. One example is ISCOS helping ex-offenders and their families reintegrate into society by developing their skills set, assisting them to have gainful employment, and providing them social support to aid in their reintegration into society. It has the Skills Assistance Subsidy Scheme (SASS) in place to provide training subsidies to members (ex-offenders) who are keen to upgrade their skills from time to time. Since its introduction in 2011, SASS has benefitted over 300 members in total.

Sdg Goal 8Another example is Singapore Professionals’ and Executives’ Co-operative (SPEC), a co-operative founded in 2000 by the Singapore Human Resources Institute to enhance employment and employability. Set up in response to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, SPEC aims to help retrenched local PMETs gain meaningful employment again. It offers group medical and protection insurance, corporate outplacement services, talent-matching services, career conversion assistance, counselling, coaching and social-networking opportunities to help displaced PMETs successfully re-join the workforce.

Seacare Co-operative Limited generates sustainable growth in its human resource business by exclusively hiring retrenched professionals, retirees and back-to work mothers for temporary and contract positions in schools, laboratories and offices. It equips them with professional skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the marketplace while offering them the opportunity to acclimatise to the pace of today’s work environment.

Other co-operatives like Premier Security Co-operative Limited and Co-operative of Singapore Civil Defence Force Employees Limited (COSEM) leverage the experience and knowledge of retired uniformed officers by employing them to provide value-added security, fire-fighting, building safety and ambulance services. NTUC Foodfare also champions the hiring of older employees. This ensure that the elderly can stay active after their retirement and continue to lead a fulfilling life.

• Responsible Consumption & Production and Climate Action

Sdg Goal12Co-operatives also adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption to effect climate change. NTUC FairPrice for example supports local produce and locally made products to help in diversifying and establishing greater food security in Singapore13. As part of its CSR-centric business focus, NTUC FairPrice also donates unsold but wholesome groceries at its stores to the less fortunate in our society, helping in its overall sustainability efforts towards food waste reduction5. NTUC Foodfare also helps to turn food waste into compost to fertilise the gardens at [email protected] Teck Puat Hospital14.

Sdg Goal13On the climate action front, NTUC Income ensures sustainable resource use through energy-efficient practices such as switching off air-conditioning at 7pm, and minimising paper use through the use of e-statements. To further reduce the environmental footprint of their buildings, they retrofit buildings they own to at least BCA Greenmark bronze standard and consider BCA Greenmark standards in purchasing properties15.

 

Conclusion

Co-operatives are regulated form of social enterprises formed by members for members and work on the principle of self-sustenance and mutual help. The co-operative movement has had a history of more than 90 years in Singapore, and has become an important component of Singapore's social and economic infrastructure. It has an imprint in various sectors of the economy as well as in society, catering to people from all walks of life. Over time, many Singaporeans have developed an instinctive trust in co-operatives as they are viewed as having a strong social purpose. Co-operatives do not profiteer but instead, share surpluses with members and further help communities. They also provide for members’ well-being through schemes such as bursaries and health benefits.

Co-operatives have a part to play in helping Singapore realise sustainable development goals. Co-operatives have become the pacesetters for the wider business community, helping to benchmark on price and quality standards against other service providers in the economy and moderate the cost of living. For instance, NTUC Co-operatives have served Singapore well in this aspect. Co-operatives also provide employment opportunities and increase inclusion of less advantaged, such as ex-offenders and the elderly for their operations. They have also facilitated access to education through study grants and educational awards like scholarships and bursaries as well as educational loans, helping to lessen their members’ financial burden. Credit Co-operatives today have close to SGD 1 billion assets1. They continue to encourage savings for rainy days and give out loans at attractive rates to help members in times of need especially close to festive occasions. Its interest rates are well below that of credit card companies, legal and illegal moneylenders, and companies that offer instalment plans. They continue to play an important role in Singapore society after 92 years.


Annual Report on the Co-operative Societies in Singapore, MCCY, March 2017
Singapore Population 2017, Department of Statistics Singapore
Figure is derived based on available data collected by SNCF
http://ntucsocialenterprises.sg/about-us/annual-reports-2016/index.html#developing-sustainablity
NTUC FairPrice
NTUC Foodfare
NTUC Health
Industrial & Services Co-operative Society Ltd (ISCOS)
NTUC Income
10 NTUC FirstCampus
11 Figure is derived based on available data collected by SNCF
12 Figure is derived based on available data collected by SNCF
13 NTUC This week, 17 September 2017
14 Foodfare @ KTPH: New Look, New Serves
15 NTUC Income, Corporate Social Responsibility

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