Support Lim Swee Say In Spite Of What He Says

TL;DR version: Support Lim Swee Say, but let other voices help in steering the labour movement.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was forged in days of a different political landscape. It had its genesis in the founding of what later became the dominant political party. It served its purpose then, galvanising the rank and file behind the push to take over Singapore on independence.

That was 54 years ago and I am having trouble with the term ‘Labour Movement’ in this day and age, and in this country. If the governing party is for us, with us and for the country, then why is there a need for a Labour Movement, and why is there a third wheel just so we can call something ‘tripartism’? Surely MOM would be working for the workers, and we would be represented by our votes cast?

Plus, a government minister has always been appointed to the post of NTUC’s Secretary General – so I dunno man, it’s like a redundancy department of redundancy. You would think that the cabinet minister / secretary general would have the unions’ and government’s views aligned most times, and if workers had grievances against the government, you wouldn’t trust him to take your side.

But we’ve had the late President Ong Teng Cheong proving otherwise when he was NTUC Chief, authorising a strike in 1986 (yes, they are legal) without the approval of cabinet, earning the ire of his peers.

A couple of appointments later, we had Lim Swee Say, now Minister of Manpower. Now this man is easily ridiculed for his wacky turns of phrases (cheaperer and betterer, circa 2013), off-colour jokes (kiasu, kiasi, kia-SARS, circa 2004) and non-sequitur anecdotes (toothpicks 2014). But take a look at his tenure at NTUC – he pushed for all manner of schemes to be financed – oversaw the formation of two institutions aimed at making our citizens more skilled and competitive – WDA and e2i, and pulled at the Government’s purse strings to build a sizeable war chest in the millions of dollars to throw at the unions’ charters of making workers’ lives better.

There’s a story I like telling my friends and clients about how e2i funding helped an old and small noodle making factory retain their loyal but ageing staff by forking out almost 90% of the costs of machinery and a freaking brand new and larger truck because it would make the workers’ lives easier – the staff don’t have to carry loads of flour because machines the e2i bought do it for them, and the driver makes fewer trips because the new truck is larger.

Despite this and other happy stories, the main problem with e2i funding is, incredibly, that not enough businesses know how to access it.

From what I’ve seen at NTUC, I venture to say that there is no other country in the world with this kind of labour movement. And you have to give credit to Zorro Lim Swee Say for some of the things currently in place, just don’t let him sing his Upturn the Downturn song.

For all the admiration I have of the former Secretary General Minister, there is a caveat. The third prong of tripartism is still too tied to the PAP for my liking, and if it remains this way, will be the main obstacle to it being a truly independent, worker-centric player in our labour troika.

I attended the May Day Rally in 2014 and this year, and both times I was disturbed by the rally cry of ‘Majulah PAP’ at the end of the event. I finally brought this up at a online media session last month featuring the new Secretary General Chan Chun Sing, who dismissed it as mere ‘form’, and that he was ‘more concerned with substance’.

I suggested that since it was mere form, then get rid of it. He parried and changed the subject somewhat, so I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I believe what the NTUC and Lim Swee Say has done – like our version of minimum wage – is working, and we’re nimble enough to tweak stuff as we go along. But I really want the NTUC to cut its umbilical cord from Mother PAP – it’s time to let other minds join the work on getting the right mix.

The Progressive Wage Model Looks Horrible On Paper (Literally)

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I am extremely impressed at NTUC Secretary-General’s aversion to Powerpoint. I would have switched off at probably the second slide or so if he had used it.

Instead (you can see an example of his freehand presentation in this video at 0:53s) there was a refreshingly engaging encounter as Mr Lim Swee Say spent over two hours explaining the role of the NTUC, how he got to become Secretary-General, and what his aims were in trying to improve the labour market situation as well as ameliorate the social costs of economic growth.

Unless you’re an economist, or labour market policy maker, you’re likely to still find the session as interesting as watching the glowing logo on top of the NTUC Centre building change colour. Or less.

I was still curious to know why there was an aversion to a mandatory national minimum wage, or even different minimum wages for different industries. Some supporters of minimum wage already claim that Singapore isn’t doing enough to lift the lowest wages off the floor, like what Hong Kong (HKD 3,580 per month for foreign domestic workers) and Malaysia (USD 281.60 per month for the private sector) are doing.

There is no such thing as the perfect market, and Mr Upturn The Downturn gave a refresher course on labour economics for those turned off because a junior college economics lecturer insisted on referring to something called “Kee-Nee-Sian” economics. (It was only in my first semester of university, after having been made the laughing stock of my first year econs class that I started pronouncing it as students of John Maynard Keynes intended.)

Two permanent ink marker pens and six sheets later, I was aware of a thing called the Progressive Wage Model, as opposed to a silver bullet or “shock therapy” Minimum Wage Model proposed by some.

Instead of merely boosting pay, the labour movement has been, since June last year, aiming to improve the lowest earning workers’ “productivity, skills and career prospects” by means of highly subsidised skills training. The NTUC has also been apparently instrumental in getting government ministries and agencies – themselves very large employers, to only engage companies who let their staff participate in skills training – a move which will earn them accreditation necessary to win government contracts.

The NTUC also has to work in concert with Government to ensure that jobs are created, and that these jobs are filled without employers resorting to and relying on cheap, imported labour at the expense of productivity.

It is a tough balance to strike, and whether the Progressive Wage Model is a better model than a one-stop Minimum Wage as Lim Swee Say says it is may be a bit too early to tell.

I will have you all know that it hasn’t got much to do with Cheaperer, Betterer, Fasterer. The Secretary-General did attempt to explain his much maligned motto in context, but that’s for another story.