Lessons in leadership and growth from Singapore co-ops

Sng Ler Jun reports from a recent forum led by the Singapore National Co-operative Federation

In early May, co-operative leaders came together at the Singapore Co-operative Forum to glean insights on talent development and leadership succession from thought leaders in the co-operative, corporate, and trade union sectors.

Organised by the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF), the forum, themed Do Today for Tomorrow’s Needs, gathered 110 participants, including representatives from the different co-op sectors (credit, service, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and campus), the Registry of Co-operative Societies, the Central Cooperative Fund Committee, and other stakeholders. Alvin Tan, minister for culture, community and youth, and trade and industry, and MPs Carrie Tan and Yip Hon Weng were also in attendance.

“The theme underscores the importance of addressing current challenges while anticipating the future demands within our co-operatives,” said service sector chair and event host, Evelyn Siow (Seacare).

Lim Swee Say on good leadership

Next year, the Singaporean co-operative movement will turn 100. Acknowledging this history, former NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say paralleled its progress to the nation’s development.

“The government’s commitment to orderly leadership development and renewal has served the interest of the country and our people well,” he said. Lim was referring to Singapore’s recent leadership transition with Lawrence Wong taking office as the nation’s fourth prime minister, after Lee Hsien Loong, who is now serving as a senior minister in the prime minister’s office.

Related: Singaporean parliament amends Co-operative Societies Act 

“As we move into the future, some co-operatives will go into decline, some co-operatives will thrive, and new co-operatives will be born,” the former minister of manpower said in his keynote address on shaping the future of co-operatives.

“In the world of greater uncertainty, do you have the right leadership today or tomorrow to ensure that your organisation remains relevant?” he asked.

Leadership development and succession planning, thus, are key thrusts to ensure the longevity of co-operatives and their relevance in Singapore, he added.

Lim defined co-operatives as entities that meet the needs and aspirations of their members.

Engaging members and leveraging the co-operative’s democratic model are key assets. Co-operatives should also embrace innovations, especially technological and ecocentric ones.

“As leaders, at whatever level we are, we must all do our part to ensure that leadership development or renewal can be sustained in the seamless manner,” he said.

Lim also reflected on the leadership challenges faced by the labour movement. He referenced pioneering the labour movement’s three-flow model of leadership renewal and development – namely “flow-in, flow-up and flow-on” – as a case in point. Central Committee leaders within NTUC have to step down upon reaching the retirement age to make way for younger leaders.

He said: “At the end of the day, when we are all long gone and forgotten, hopefully, the movement that we have contributed to will continue to be able to grow and prosper.”

Succession planning starts from within: Yeo Chun Fing

“There are a lot of good talents within co-operatives,” said Yeo Chun Fing, former SNCF Exco member and chair of Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) Credit Co-operative, in the subsequent panel discussion.

Yeo, who served as AUPE’s fifth-generation general-secretary, said leadership succession from AUPE and its credit co-operative comes from within.  “We groom from the pipeline,” he added. Yeo has since stepped down, and his successor, Sanjeev Tiwari, has now taken the helm. “When it comes to succession planning, start early,”

Yeo said in an interview with SNCF in 2023: “You’d be surprised that some candidates may not fit the job or staff may require more time to adapt to the new culture … My first job, when I first took over, was to look for a successor.”

Building organisational culture is important, says Raen Lim

The panel discussion also raised the topic of creating a positive organisational culture. “Companies that have been very successful in retaining employees and lowering the attrition rate have created and sustained a strong organisational culture,” said SNCF Exco member Raen Lim, who represented the private sector on the panel.

Lim, who is also Splunk Inc’s group vice-president (Asia), added that a positive organisational culture helps employees build a sense of belonging and create a sense of identity within the company.

“The newer generation is harder to please in the sense that they are more discerning about the companies they work for,” she said. Generation Z workers (those born between 1997 and 2012) will make up 27% of the global workforce in 2025. Many of them may be looking for purposeful work, and this is where social enterprises and co-operatives stand out.

“The younger workers are also mindful of work-life balance and are big on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI),” said Lim. Companies that look at these factors are more likely to woo younger employees. In 2022, Splunk Inc. has employed its first chief diversity officer to look into DEI and drive positive change in the marketplace.

Offering competitive compensation and benefits are other ways co-operatives can consider in order to retain and attract staff. “How can we, as leaders, help employees feel that they are being taken care of with the high inflation rate?” Lim said.

Many younger employees seek early career development in their work-life, with some expecting yearly promotions and raises. Lim, however, remains pragmatic. “That’s not possible,” she said. “But what we could do is to look at how we can develop individuals along the way. These include enhancing their skillsets through industry certifications and bringing them on mentoring programmes, too.”

For Lim, the ideal team should comprise individuals with different strengths; each of whom can complement one another. Only by leveraging folks with different expertise can companies truly thrive. “How are we able to draw each person’s strengths to overcome the weaknesses,” he said.

Lim said leaders need to remain grounded as they find solutions to today’s problems. He added: “Every new solution of today will create a new problem tomorrow. So our challenge is to keep learning and adapting.

“In this world of greater uncertainty, remember there is no such thing as a perfect leader, a perfect manager, or a perfect person.”

For Lim, what co-operatives can strive for is forge a team that comprises individuals with different yet complementary strengths. These are also folks who are fully aligned in their passions and purpose to serve, lead and nurture succession.

“That is, to me, perfect leadership,” he said.

In this article: