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The article was first published in the Co-operator (April - June 2012 issue).

Cv Devan Nair Article… this is what the NTUC seminar on the ‘Modernisation of Organised Labour’ is all about. To take a hard look at ourselves and at our surrounding circumstances, and provide some positive ideas about how to become unstuck from the grooves of the past.

- Former President of Singapore, Mr C V Devan Nair in his speech at the NTUC Modernisation Seminar

These “positive ideas”, which were shared with passion and clarity, took root deeply and started a social revolution with the birth of the NTUC Co-operatives, whose ideals invigorated Singapore’s co-operative landscape.

Janadas Devan Article
 Janadas Devan, son of C V Devan Nair

On 16 November 1969, a 14-year old boy and his brother were ‘dragged’ by their father to the Singapore Conference Hall. There, these boys heard what was to become of the labour movement as it stood on the threshold of transforming the way workers lived, played, and worked. Now, an Associate Editor with the Straits Times and Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Janadas Devan recounts how his father, former NTUC Secretary-General Devan Nair championed the cause of co-operative co-ownership.

“I found myself enraptured by what I heard – the creation of a co-operative enterprise where co-ownership is the key. That’s what’s behind the NTUC modernisation seminar and the essence of the Co-operative Movement - giving people a sense of co-ownership. It’s not about whether I own it and you don’t, but we all own this together.”

Start with Insurance

“My father was very much taken by the idea of using co-operatives to improve people’s lives. As a result of talking to the Swedes, Germans and Israelis, the idea was actually to start a co-operative bank. A few days before the modernisation seminar, Dr Goh Keng Swee called my father. Dr Goh was naturally skeptical that the trade union would really modernise. He said: “Devan, are you serious about this? Are you really going to do this?” My father told him: “If this doesn’t work out, you and Kuan Yew (Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) can find me something else to do.” Having heard that, Dr Goh must have taken it very seriously indeed. He was a brilliant man. He sat down and wrote this remarkable paper for the modernisation seminar. Almost the entire programme was laid out with such clarity that even a 14-year old could understand. And it was Dr Goh who said: “Don’t start with the bank, start with insurance.” Thus, was NTUC Income born.

“The idea of a consumer co-operative – to break the rice cartel and benchmark the cost of staples was mooted later. The consumer co-operative was birthed with NTUC Welcome, which is now known as NTUC FairPrice.”

NTUC Comfort – From Gangsters to Stakeholders 

“NTUC Comfort was my father’s idea. This is where his knowledge on Marxism came in useful – in particular, the concept of the “Lumpenproletariat”, which means “rogue proletariat” in German. They were not your usual workers, but people who existed on the fringes of society. They included gangsters, secret society members, day labourers, vagabonds, and so on.”
“Marxists didn’t do much with this category as they didn’t think there was much revolutionary potential in them. But Mao Zedong thought otherwise and had in fact organised the “Lumpenproletariat” in his first base area in Jiangxi. In Marxist theory, the revolution doesn’t come from the peasantry, but from industrialised workers. It was Mao who turned that around.”

The Comfort co-operative started with the aim of providing a stake in society to taxi drivers and pirate taxi operators. These were people, who, at one time, had no stake at all. The greater majority of them could not even dream of one day owning their own vehicles. But today, through the efforts of NTUC Comfort, a most significant change has taken place. Many of them are also proud owners of their own HDB flats, because as members of the Comfort co-operative, they are also regular contributors to the CPF. 

- An excerpt from an address by Mr C V Devan Nair at a meeting for 200 minibus operators in July 1976

“So my father had this idea about organising the “Lumpenproletariat” – in this case, the pirate taxi drivers, the ba ong chia, quite a number of whom were members of secret societies. He suggested organising this “Lumpenproletariat” into a co-operative, give them a stake, and after three or four years, own their taxis so that they could become taxi owner-drivers. And there were not just taxis but mini-vans to take children to schools. All this was made possible by the Government’s agreement to provide NTUC Co-operative with a low-interest loan, at World Bank rates, to finance the bulk purchase, at a satisfactory discount, of taxis and mini buses. The idea was truly inspiring.”

“These were marginalised people. Give them a stake in society; bring them into the tent, so to speak. That’s very important. That was the essential reason why the modernisation of the trade unions was launched - to give a new role to trade unionism and use the Co-operative Movement to give workers a greater stake in society. The old model of trade unionism became more and more irrelevant.”

“It comes as no surprise that my father was awfully unhappy when he heard years later of Comfort’s corporatisation. The situation had changed, the relationships had been drastically altered and it was no longer possible to have owner-drivers. Taxi drivers could no longer own their taxis or remain as members of the co-operative. The former sense of co-ownership was no longer possible. Hopefully, we can find new platforms to nurture that sense.”

Co-operative Ideals – The Foundation of Singapore

“The inspiration for the building up of Singapore among our founding generation was in fact more aligned with the ideals of co-operative movement than corporate culture. Corporate culture only came later.”

“Many people forget this, but the first generation of Singapore’s leaders were not the products of corporate culture. Yes, some of them came from well-off backgrounds. But the core of the leadership – including founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee, and certainly my father -- rose from the trade unions. That’s where they started, that was their base. They all began as democratic socialists. They grew disenchanted with socialist economics but never gave up their social-democratic ideals.”

Sense of Dedication

“What I remember most was the sense of dedication these leaders had. They weren’t in it for position, power or money. First of all, there wasn’t much money to speak of. And a lot of the times, they worked without the assurance they would succeed. Much of it was very experimental. After all, what experience and training did they have to run co-operatives? What made them think they could do this? But they did. They studied, found out how things were done elsewhere, and they adapted things to our circumstances. It was a small group who did this, but they had courage, dedication, and a deep sense of mission. And sometimes their ideas were quite zany – for example, one of my father’s ideas was for all unions to pool together their money and buy the Singapore lottery! Fortunately, that was never put into effect.”

cv devan nair present award article kraken
Photo courtesy of the United Workers of Petroleum Industry: A unionist receives and award from Mr Nair

The Relevance of Co-ownership and Co-operatives today 

“Co-operatives are one way of addressing social and income inequality. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken about this several times. Social mobility has in fact declined in Singapore, owing partly to our previous successes. Whatever the cause, it is not good for society to have an underclass. How do you mitigate the effects of income disparity? I believe co-operatives can help play an enormously vital role not in solving income inequality, but in ameliorating its effects.”

“Of the three main issues (housing, transportation, and healthcare) facing Singaporeans, I think the biggest is healthcare since it concerns existential questions, with the huge bulk of the healthcare expenditure in one’s lifetime usually incurred in one’s twilight years. How do you make healthcare more affordable over the long run? How do you solve this problem? It’s a complex subject which I don’t mean to simplify. But if co-operatives can come alongside in this regard, they may be able to play a significant role in helping to resolve this problem. At any rate, we should emulate the spirit of adventure, and experiment of our founding generation.”

Learning Tips

• Give people a sense of co-ownership
• Embrace the spirit of adventure and experiment in addressing social issues
• Have a deep sense of mission

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