Fish farm co-op under probe

Registry of Cooperative Societies acting on feedback about the way co-op operates
Jessica Lim Straits Times 21 Nov 11;

THE Singapore Marine Aquaculture Cooperative (Smac) is under investigation after questions were raised about the way it has been run.

The Registry of Cooperative Societies, which regulates the activities of cooperatives here, said it is acting on feedback it has received recently about Smac's governance and administration, and is checking if any rules of the Cooperative Societies Act have been broken.

It has been a series of fits and starts since 18 fish farmers banded together to register Smac as a co-op in January.

Jointly owning eight fish farms off Changi and Pasir Ris, the group hatched ambitious plans to boost the farm yields of its members and operate a sea ambulance. Neither of these has happened.

The membership fee, originally tagged at the one-off sum of $10,000, had to be slashed to $1,000 when members baulked at the sum; only the co-op's five board members have paid up so far.

Several high-level members have quit in the last few months, notably Mr Alan Chia, the co-op's chief executive, who threw in the towel last month.

The 32-year-old former business consultant claims he was hired at $3,000 a month, but has not been paid since he started work in July. He also claims Smac owes him $7,000 for overseas work trips he helped pay for, and several cheques he has tried to cash have bounced.

He said: 'The chairman keeps saying, 'Wait, wait... soon, we'll have more members and investors and I can pay you back'.'

Smac's chairman and founder is Mr Philip Lim, 49, who owns three fish farms in Pasir Ris.

Mr Chia, who said he is consulting a lawyer, added that the amounts spent so far had not been approved by the co-op's members. 'It's all in a mess. There are no investors, no funds, nothing,' he said.

The Straits Times understands that the co-op owes a food caterer $5,500 for a media event Smac held in September, and that it had unveiled plans to build a US$4 million (S$5.2 million) processing plant in Indonesia with input from investors.

Mr Lim, denying the allegations, said Mr Chia had never been formally employed by Smac; no employment contract had been signed.

To Mr Chia's claim about having paid for the work trips, Mr Lim said the payments had been made on someone else's credit card, and Mr Chia had not produced the receipts.

The chairman, noting that the co-op made decisions only after meetings with its members, said it was looking into the matter internally.

Contrary to what Mr Chia said, Mr Lim countered that Smac did have investors, though he was unable to reveal who they were or how much they had sunk into Smac for 'confidentiality reasons'.

In response to Smac's grand plans coming to nothing, Mr Lim said production goals had not been met because of a fish fry shortage here, and no landing base has been found for the sea ambulance.

Smac member Joseph Neo, 38, said there has been 'a lot of misunderstanding', and that the co-op was trying to sort things out. 'There was a lot of change in membership. Everything is quite messy. It's very haphazard,' he said.

All the 85 co-ops here, bound by the Cooperatives Societies Act, are required to have a minimum number of members, to vote on decisions and to hold annual general meetings.

Co-ops here do not pay corporate taxes, but are required to contribute 5 per cent of the first $500,000 of their surpluses to a Central Cooperative Fund used to develop the co-op movement here. In addition, 20 per cent of any surplus in excess of $500,000 will go to the Singapore Labour Foundation or the Central Cooperative Fund.

If Smac has breached these rules, it could be wound up or fined.

Meanwhile, about 40 other fish farmers have formed the Fish Farmers Association of Singapore. Formally registered in May, it aims to buy fry and fish feed in bulk to bring down costs.