Tuesday, June 3, 2014

State of Social Enterprise in Singapore

I went for a talk on ACSEP Social Entrepreneurship (SE) Series: Landscape of Social Enterprises in Singapore by Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP)

There was some insight on the state of social enterpreneurship in Singapore.

The seminar will address current issues surrounding social enterprise, focusing on: —

  • Core principles underpinning a social enterprise — 
  • Public perception of the social enterprise model — 
  • Challenges and opportunities facing the sector

With some comparisons with the UK, South Korea, the SE in Singapore does not seem to do as well as other developed countries.

There was some talk about the ambiguity of definition of Social Enterprises, and how some organizations identified themselves as social enterprises but there were only about 150-300 SEs in Singapore compared to 1000+ in South Korea where the government started the SE initiatives later but seems to have more SEs in the country.

There was a little focus to talk about how NTUC is one of the largest social enterprise, but during the Q&A, many people questioned why NTUC is considered a social enterprise.

There seems to be very little support from the government on social entrepreneurship. Back in 2008, there was a lot of talk on Social Entrepreneurship, much funding and training provided. However, even with NTUC and various other companies like Grab Taxi identifying themselves as Social Enterprises, there is 150-300 of them in Singapore?

Many questioned on why NTUC is considered a social enterprises and the response was "NTUC is a cooperative which gives a % back to the members"

I asked if Unilevel and SAP, companies who partnered Grameen Creative Labs on several social initiatives for social impact can be considered social enterprises, the reply was they only donated a small % of their profits as CSR.

Then a model was shared and according to the Social Enterprise Association in Singapore, an organization that gives 10% of the profits to a social cause can be considered a social enterprise. So can Marina Bay Sands or Resorts World Sentosa be considered a social enterprises if they donated 10% of their earnings to Gamblers Annoymous?

Currently, there is no legal structure for a social enterprise in Singapore. An organisation can choose to either be registered as a charity (in which case it forgoes doing business) or be registered as a full commercial company (where the profits can, but need not, go to charity). In UK, there is the CIC organizations, in the US, a L3C, and in South Korea, a Social Enterprise enjoys different tax structures and funding. Nothing here in Singapore.

With NTUC labeled as a social enterprise, I feel that it opens the door for all sorts of companies to be considered social enterprises. I have heard about some social enterprises hiring ex-convicts, handicapped people and the elderly, getting a tax break and underpaying the people they hire, and yet still considered social enterprises.

I disagreed with several NUS business school professors who say that it is important for a company to do well before doing good, and a social entrepreneur has to juggle with decisions whether to make less profits or to exploit the employees.

When profits is the primary focus of a company, I feel that that company should not be called a social enterprise. Some of these companies are merely companies with a CSR program. Giving 10% of your profits to say that you are doing social good is not bad, but it does not make you a social enterprise.

A social enterprise should not pay a handicapped person or a marginalized person less, just because they can, and still call themselves a social enterprise. Sometimes, that is the only reason these companies can be considered social enterprises in the first place, and using the faces of these marginalized people for marketing purpose is definitely worth not exploiting them. They are the marketing material.

There is much to progress as a nation and I hope people do not do things for the sake of doing. But first, stop white washing your company's name. NTUC by itself is a good brand without being a social enterprise. Perhaps you can be more competitive in your pricing and pay more decent wages for better service.

-- Robin Low