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The key for any co-operative is that it must be professionally run and be profitable, unless there are very special circumstances where profit has to be sacrificed for you to serve an objective.
- Mr S Chandra Das

Chandra DasProfit is not a dirty word, asserts Mr S Chandra Das.

“Co-operative must be profitable organisations. Once you have money, you can do a lot of good work. When private companies make money, the money goes to shareholders. But in co-operatives, we find ways and means to return the surpluses in the form of rebates, high dividends and bursaries. Co-operatives can choose to give a $1million away to help the poor. Listed company probably can’t do that. The shareholders will make noise,” he says.

Mr Das should know.

 

As an astute businessman, he served and still sits on the boards of few listed companies.

As a former Director of NTUC Welcome Consumers' Co-operative Limited supermarket (1973 to 1976) and Chairman of NTUC FairPrice Co-operative Limited (1993 to 2005), he played a pivotal role in turning FairPrice into a household name, gaining for himself “Mr Everyday Low Price” label. The Public Service Star recipient’s acknowledgements include receiving Rochdale Medal from Singapore National Co-operative Federation Ltd in 1998, the Distinguished Service (Star) Award by National Trades Union Congress in 2005 and the Public Service Star in 2014. Mr Das also served a good two terms as Chairman of Central Co-operative Fund Committee.

When and what were your earliest Co-operative involvements?

I got into it by pure accident. It was in 1967. I was Director of the Export Promotion Centre in the Economic Development Board (EDB) then, specialising in trade and travelling frequently to promote Singapore products. One of the main items I helped to promote was shoes in Eastern Europe.

One day in 1967, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee called me and said he needed to find employment for 48 political detainees. With support from my colleagues in EDB and Mr GC Thio – of Bata shoes and the first chairman of the National Productivity Board, we discussed a deal which would have the detainees work in a division supplying ladies’ slippers. The “Shoemakers’ Co-operative” was formed. The detainees attended training in Bata and produced Bata quality ladies’ slippers. Mr Ong Kar Kok, Director of Logistics for MINDEF was made Chairman; and I became Vice Chairman of the Co-operative.

The workers soon became edgy and wanted more money. Dr Goh on hearing that commented: “Very good! If they are asking for more money, they are no longer communists, they have become capitalists!” It was a very successful co-operative. Unfortunately, I had to leave after one and a half years when I was posted to Moscow as Singapore’s Trade Representative.

Soon after I returned, three co-operatives were suggested for taxis, insurance, and food at the NTUC Modernisation Seminar in 1969. I joined the board of NTUC Welcome - the food co-operative and became one of the original directors for NTUC Welcome (which later became NTUC FairPrice in the early 1980s). My job was to help in procurement of goods. We opened the first Welcome outlet in Toa Payoh. Welcome was my second co-operative involvement.

What drives you to do the good work?

When I was in secondary school, I noticed that every year, a big group of mainly old people would queue up at Great World and wait to collect one tin of Ovaltine and $10 given by a philanthropist. I thought to myself, why tell the world they are poor. When I became a Member of Parliament, one of the first thing I did for the public assistance scheme recipients was to deliver the $100 voucher to the recipients individually and not make them come to the branch to collect. They are already poor. Why make them queue to get another hand out? That is the motivation.

What are your views on risk and failure in running a co-operative?

There is an element of risk to take when running a co-operative or any businesses. We can’t be reckless but neither should we be risk adverse. Today, we have the big numbers and therefore we want to play it safe and want to get it right. In the process people become more risk adverse and often try to second guess what the bosses want. That is the danger.

Staff should just tell the facts. Bosses should be receptive to listen and understand the situation from the ground. They should allow mistakes to be made in order to do better in business and/or in social impact.


FairPrice went to China too early. We didn’t know the terrain and depended on our partners who had a different plan. We lost money there. We failed in Malaysia due to pilferage. We didn’t make it in Myanmar due to political reasons then. Failure is a lesson learnt. We can accept failures but we must first have a reasonable chance of success.

I believe businessmen are willing to share their expertise and volunteer their time in making co-operatives work. People need to be challenged. We need to bring in the right person with passion and time to spare. He will then attract like-minded people into the Co-operatives to make things happen. People are willing to be involved but they need to be given a certain amount of freedom to do new things. If not, volunteer work makes no sense.

Is there a role Co-operatives can play in the disruptive economy?

Co-operatives still have a role to play in the economy as long as they stay relevant and professional. In addition, there will be a greater chance of success if community is involved. One sector which is amiable to the co-operative will be the elderly. They go for medical check-up and regular blood tests. What if we can employ a group of 10 to 20 nurses to go to the homes of the elderly to collect blood for tests and do regular check-ups instead of having the elderly queue at the clinic, for example? This will be disruptive to the hospitals and the clinics.

“After a while, people tend to forget the social mission since it’s a very fine line between business and social enterprise. One does business and tends to forget the social aspects underlining the business. So co-operatives must always be reminded that they have a unique role to play. They must be profitable and always conscious of their social mission.”



Learning Tips

• Treat as businesses - profitable and professionally run
• Attune to social needs to stay relevant
• Bring in the right people with passion

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