Future-proofing co-ops: Sector leaders look at cybercrime and crisis communications

Ler Jun Sng writes from the Annual Co-operative Leaders Conference in Malaysia

“Co-operatives are resilient and relatable enterprises,” said Tng Ah Yiam, chair of the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF) in his opening address at the Annual Co-operative Leaders’ Conference (ACLC) 2022.

Taking place in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, in November, ACLC 2022 saw around 120 participants, including 93 co-operative leaders, make their first overseas journey together since before the pandemic.

The conference included the soft launch of the new Singapore co-operative movement logo, which aims to rejuvenate the Singapore co-operative movement in the public sphere. “Through this logo, we hope to bring together co-ops to celebrate the movement and shared goals,” Tng said, hinting at the Federation’s move to market the co-operative movement next year. The logo’s slogan is ‘empowering communities’.

SNCF chair Tng Ah Yiam opens the conference

The issue of cybersecurity has been the talk of the nation in recent months. In November, local eCommerce platform Carousell suffered a data breach that affected 2.6 million users. In September 2022, Singapore’s offshore and marine giant Sembcorp Marine also reported a cybersecurity incident where an unauthorised third party accessed part of the IT network.

“The main cause of data breaches or cybersecurity incidents happened due to human error,” said Tan Yong Seng, chief infrastructure and security officer at NTUC Enterprise Co-operative Limited. Understanding the motivation behind these threat actors can help organisations formulate strategies to protect themselves. These motivations can run the gamut from seeking fame to causing malicious harm. The key to dealing with such unprecedented cyber attacks is to be as disruptive as possible, he said, adding that co-op employees should be educated on the characteristics of phishing emails and ransomware that plague organisations today.

Singapore is among the first countries to have provided nationwide 5G services, which enabled secure, mission-critical applications.

Adeline Kee, Tan Yong Seng and Raen Lim discuss cybersecurity

Co-ops can consider outsourcing operational tasks, including cybersecurity related projects, to top providers who are certified while focusing on driving profits and delivering their social missions. “It is the due diligence of the project manager to ensure that third-party service providers protect their assets,” said SNCF’s assistant chief executive officer, Adeline Kee. “These vendors should have relevant cybersecurity certifications and are audited regularly.”

Co-ops can also consider employing a chief technology officer (CTO) to bolster their cybersecurity defences. SNCF is planning to  work closely with the Registry of Co-operative Societies (RCS) to reward co-operatives that have implemented basic cyber-hygiene measures.

“The session on ‘Navigating the Cybersecurity Landscape’ and subsequent panel discussion were exactly what we needed to bring awareness and focus attention on cybersecurity,” reflected Wily Wan, SNCF EXCO member and associate general counsel at Meta. “I hope that attendees will be inspired to start discussions (if they have not already done so) within their organisations on what they can or should do to try and mitigate this risk area.”

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How can co-operative leaders navigate the social media space when a crisis happens to ride out the buzz? What communication messages should co-operatives dole out when badgered by the public or the media? What is the role of the media in today’s competitive landscape?

These were the guiding questions presented in a session led by Jessie Ho and Anne Phey, the leaders of Singapore-based PR agency Ninemer PR and Communications. “It’s good to assure the public or the media, and gain their trust back,” said Ho, who has had decades of experience helping organisations, including co-ops, handle communication crises.

Anne Phey and Jessie Ho from Ninemer PR

The media is never the enemy, Ho emphasised, highlighting that it is the media’s prerogative to question and dig for answers for the public. Along this vein, the media can be leveraged to appease and assure the naysayers. Phey also highlighted that traditional media, such as print newspapers and TV news, are losing out in the social media era. Phey said: “These days, we receive news instantaneously on social media, such as citizen journalism website Mothership, before the news hits the printed press or TV.”

One of the case studies that hit home is related to local supermarket co-operative NTUC FairPrice. When the island-city first caught wind of the pandemic, sparking rampant panic buying of essential supplies, such as toilet paper, news of empty shelves of toilet rows hit the press. To quell the noise, the then-NTUC FairPrice Group’s chief executive Seah Kian Peng invited the press to one of its factories to showcase the inventory of toilet rolls. The following day, a photograph of him standing in front of the inventory of toilet rows appeared on the front pages of several local dailies. “A picture speaks a thousand words,” Phey said.

Co-operatives should look into developing a crisis communication team to anticipate crises and handle these hurdles. “Every crisis can present an opportunity too,” she added. “Empathy is also of paramount importance when dealing with a crisis, but it also must be followed by actions to salvage a situation and reduce the impact of a crisis on the victims.”

Charting co-operatives’ future

Co-operatives have played a pivotal role in the growth and development of Singapore over the last century. Recognising that co-operatives will continue to be a key stakeholder in Singapore’s growth, SNCF, alongside the RCS, took the opportunity at ACLC 2022 to engage co-operative leaders in the Forward Singapore exercise.

The Forward Singapore exercise is a collective effort led by Singapore’s deputy prime minister Lawrence Wong and his 4G leadership team, working in partnership with Singaporeans, to review and refresh the nation’s social compact and set out the roadmap for the next decade and beyond. A report will be published in mid-2023, which will impact future policies.

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“Co-ops are really well-placed to step up even further and play an important role to refresh the social compact”, said Alvin Tan, minister of state for culture, community and youth, and trade and industry, in a pre-recorded message to the conference. 

He also praised co-operatives as social enterprises that care for their members and build communities. “It is this spirit of mutual assistance (that co-ops have) that is essential as we go on to the next chapter of our nation building,” he said.