I wonder which country in the world has a labour movement which writes to the head of Government to ask that he release an office-holder so that the man can vie for office in the…labour movement. But I guess it’s better than the parachuting of an unknown into a big office on someone’s say-so.
It says much about the symbiotic relationship between the G (or is it the People’s Action Party?) and the NTUC, that no one has said anything about the above “poaching’’ process. One guess is that the concept is so in-grained or well accepted that nobody talks about it anymore. The vision of the union and the G is aligned, and leaders move in and out. They even maintain offices on both sides of a (non-existent) fence!
So Mr Chan Chun Sing is the man of the moment. The PM has said okay and Mr Chan has to win the votes of delegates in October to get the top job of secretary-general. We all know that the head of the NTUC has to be politically acceptable. As well as the ability to win the hearts and minds of workers. So both have to go together.
There is a precedent in the form of Mr Lim Chee Onn, once the flavor of the month and among the front-runners for the premiership. Although he got the top job with the blessings of the political leadership, he was removed as the secretary-general because his leadership style rankled on the rank-and-file. I’m basing this on memory because I’m having a hard time researching the background. I’m not sure if he was removed at a conference or simply told to step aside in favour of someone more palatable, in this case, the late president Ong Teng Cheong.
I am among those who were surprised at the choice of the NTUC central committee. MSM reports that even unionists were surprised. In fact, I am more surprised that there has been no successor groomed for Mr Lim Swee Say’s job after all these years. Nobody knew that Mr Lim was going to turn 62 soon and has to retire? Its current crop of deputy/assistant sec-gens not good enough?
As for the choice of Mr Chan, the surprise is that a career civil servant whose only experience has been in one “unique” sector, the military, should have been the choice of the key union leaders. Perhaps, it is because he heads the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which deals with bread-and-butter issues of the less privileged that makes top union leaders think he is a good choice? It cannot only be because he drinks coffee with taxi-drivers; he’s an advisor to the taxi drivers’ unions. Or because he can adopt as folksy a manner as Mr Lim?
All I can say is that we seem to have an amazing paucity of talent, so much so that established institutions here have to raid each other, like companies poaching in the private sector. Or is there a bigger, long-term objective in sight, such as Mr Chan is being tested for an even bigger job. Much as Mr Lim Chee Onn was. Getting the endorsement of the labour movement, which has nearly one million members, is a big deal. Given that Mr Chan is a first-term MP, you might call this “hot housing’’.
Okay, I am rambling. Sorry.
Anyway, I have always liked Mr Lim Swee Say, since the days he was an officer in the Economic Development Board. Power and position hasn’t changed him one bit. I liked him even more in the past few years for what he was doing for the labour movement. For too long, I’ve always thought the NTUC was placing too much focus on the “social’’ aspects of its mission, such as setting up its “finest’’ supermarkets and pre-skools which it can’t spel, instead of the “organising’’ aspects of a trade union. It should be looking at wages, recruitment and workplace practices. I blame the union for not detecting the long stagnation of wages at the lowest levels.
But I can see more “organizing’’ work done in recent time. It has managed to pry open the two integrated resorts and unionized their workers. It has tried to rectify the low wages of some sectors by combining a wage floor with a productivity ladder. It has pushed for $50 salary raises within the National Wages Council. And it has finally managed to get PMEs under the labour movement’s umbrella. I still think it needs to do a better job of selling the “re-hiring’’ of older workers to the people. That is not about working till you drop dead, but about being able to work beyond a certain age if you want to.
It has also always been a source of wonder to me that the NTUC does not have its own labour experts in a strategic policy unit who can crunch the numbers on wages and employment. The labour movement should be leading the charge, rather than depend on the statistics and pronouncements of the Manpower ministry.
If Mr Chan does get the vote in October, I hope that he will carry on the organizing aspects of the movement. After all, he has headed a big organization like the military and is now the PAP organizing secretary. Perhaps, under his charge, the NTUC will be the first thing that comes to the minds of workers who feel they have been short-changed in some way. And that it is not just a place to buy groceries.
It remains for me to wish Mr Lim and Mr Chan all the best!