The Rise of the Social Enterprises


What do Income and FairPrice have in common? Apart from the fact that they are social enterprises within the Labour Movement family, they also share a common birthdate – 1969.

The idea to start them was born at the Trade Union Seminar on the “Modernization of the Labour Movement” that happened from 16 to 19 November 1969.

At the end of the Seminar, the Labour Movement came up with 14 recommendations to reinvent and bring itself into the future. The plan to start co-operatives or social enterprises was one of the most significant of these recommendations.

The History Of Co-operatives

In one of the Seminar’s workshop papers titled “Co-operation”, Professor Tom Elliott (then Director of School of Pharmacy, University of Singapore and past President of the Singapore National Academy of Sciences) said: “Co-operatives have been organised from at least as early as 3,000 B.C. to enable groups of workers to undertake tasks which, individually, they would be incapable of performing.

“However, it was only around the middle of the 19th century, in response to the changing social and economic system brought about by the industrial revolution, that modern co-operatives began to take form.”

Adapting To A New Environment

In the late 60s, the Labour Movement was confronting new challenges, especially with a fast dwindling membership base. It had to think of new ways to stay relevant to workers.

“The movement is faced with an unprecedented challenge created in the new situation where the simple traditional virtues of militancy and struggle are of little relevance,” shared Dr Goh Keng Swee, at the seminar’s proceedings.

He added that the Labour Movement had to seek a new role in society “and in seeking, and eventually performing, the new role, it will need to adapt to the changing environment.”

To take on a new role, he called on the Labour Movement to develop the co-operative movement in Singapore, “to its own advantage as well as to the national advantage.”

Co-operative Guiding Principles

He mapped out four principles that should guide the Labour Movement in meeting the co-operative challenge. The first was that the co-operative should be fully competitive with the private enterprise.

The second was that it should start co-operatives in fields where it had an advantage. The third was that the co-operatives must have high standards of integrity and lastly, the co-operatives must have an effective management.

Start of Income

Almost immediately after the Seminar in 1970, NTUC announced that it would set up a personal insurance co-operative, which came to be called NTUC Income.

Up till then, low-income workers had often been left without insurance coverage, putting their families at risk if something bad happened.

Dr Goh explained that social security in Singapore then was in an extremely rudimentary form, and that the death of a wage earner almost invariably resulted in a harsh and cruel fate for the widow and surviving children.

“They often are reduced to immediate and appalling destitution. Life insurance taken out by workers would alleviate such hardships,” said Dr Goh.

More Co-operatives Rolled Out

1970 NTUC Comfort
NTUC Comfort, the second co-operative launched by NTUC in 1970. (NTUC archive photo)

NTUC then announced that it was going to form its second co-operative in 1970. This was a taxi co-operative that made it affordable for the more than 14,000 holders of taxi licence to rent and drive taxis. Called Comfort, it was also established to reduce the number of illegal or ‘pirate’ taxis and to increase the number of taxis on the roads.

The third type of co-operative by the unions were consumer co-operatives. These were essentially supermarkets that would sell commodities like rice, sugar and cooking oil at reasonable prices. The co-operatives were also intended to combat unscrupulous traders who hoarded and profiteered from goods. Initially, there were three supermarket chains established by the unions from 1971 to 1973. All three eventually merged to form NTUC FairPrice in 1983. If you were a child of the 70s, you would remember FairPrice as Welcome!

All Grown Up

1973 Welcome Supermarket
1973 Welcome Supermarket

From one supermarket in 1973, FairPrice has grown to over 200 outlets comprising FairPrice supermarkets, FairPrice Shop, FairPrice Finest, FairPrice Xtra and Unity Pharmacies. It serves more than 600,000 shoppers every day.

Not having lost sight of its social mission since day one, NTUC Income today serves over two million customers with 3.7 million policies. It is ranked as the top composite insurer in Singapore, and one of the largest general insurers and health insurance providers in Singapore.

From Cradle To Old Age

Today, there are 10 NTUC social enterprises that collectively serve about 2 million customers annually, addressing social needs from cradle to old age. Can you guess who there are?