Singapore’s co-operative movement – a thriving sector for over 90 years

The trade union movement was one of the main drivers for co-op development in the country

Co-ops have been an integral part of Singapore’s story for 90 years – so much so, that one of the roads in Paya Lebar, a planning area in the East Region, was named the Rochdale Road.

In a new book, the Singapore National Co-operative Federation shares the stories behind some of the country’s most successful co-ops. It focuses on the origins of the co-operative movement in the country, which now has 1.4million members, and the values it helped to promote

The movement dates back to 1924 when legislation enabled the creation of credit co-ops for public sector employees. By 1928 there were seven credit co-ops, six of which still exist today.

The key to success, argues SNCF, is the ability of co-ops across different sectors to reinvent themselves to serve the needs of Singaporeans. Sellapan Ramanathan, the late Singapore politician and president of the country, was himself a member of co-ops. He saved and borrowed from a SGS credit co-op.

In the aftermath of World War II, Singapore faced severe food shortages, which led to price escalations – so consumer co-ops were set up to keep prices affordable.

Likewise, faced with a housing shortage, the Singapore Government Officers’ Co-operative Housing Society was established to help address the crisis by building homes for its members. With housing no longer in shortage, there are no housing co-ops currently in Singapore.

In the 1970s, a time of inflation, the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) set up a consumer co-operative – Welcome – with membership also open to non union members.. NTUC kept setting up new co-ops to respond to the country’s needs.

Co-ops now span multiple sectors such as childcare, healthcare and insurance, retail and industry. They include hawker co-ops, co-ops of ex-offenders and co-ops for youth or the elderly.

Singapore also offers lessons in terms of youth engagement. Through Campus Co-ops and Co-op Clubs, the movement promotes co-operative values and engages young people. In STEM Co-op Clubs students are taught to use 3D printers and laser cutters to produce their own designs such as mobile phone covers. SNCF also provides scholarships for young people, which includes an internship at the federation.

The book provides an insight into the long history of co-ops in the country while looking ahead towards a future of possibilities.

The publication is not available for sale but can be accessed in public and school libraries across Singapore.