What is a labour chief doing in cabinet?

lim swee say


In a few online criticisms, the likes of Gilbert Goh, Alex Tan, Han Hui Hui, Roy Ngerng etc all allude that the state of tripartism in Singapore was a conflict of interest. Most give the example of NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say being a union leader and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

They ask of how a union leader could speak for employees when he is, at the same time, part of the Government that pushes through policies that “do not help the working class”.


Now firstly, the sweeping statement that government policies “do not help the working class” is a bit unfair. Now i’m not from the civil servant, but we all understand that ab initio, policies are designed for the betterment of the country. This means a win/lose situation at times is unavoidable. That’s just the way life is, and it doesn’t mean that if some policies don’t suit you, it’s anti-you.

Now let’s get back to the NTUC Secretary-General. You could see his position in government in one of two ways:

a.) To benefit the government, because this person would co-operate with them or,

b.) To benefit the unions, by having a person of power and influence in the Government.

Before you take a stand, think about it: the labour policies that have been pushed out recently are difficult to co-ordinate (the Progressive Wage Model requires deep integration with individual ministries and sometimes employer associations) and difficult to implement (the Fair Considerations Framework requires a co-ordination between many agencies).

Soon, the national Budget will be announced. Various Members of Parliament sitting in the NTUC, including the secretary general will be setting their worker oriented agenda.

If there was no chief sitting between labour and government, it would have been a much more difficult task trying to co-ordinate these policies.

We could go by the book and observe a true separation of powers, but would it realistically have been as effective?

Sitting in cabinet meetings, it is the NTUC Secretary-General (SG) who speaks up for employees and presents the concerns and thoughts of the working class when the Government discusses policies that will affect the lives of Singaporeans.

Without the SG sitting within the Government, it would be harder for the concerns and thoughts of the workers to be heard. I can’t fathom how a Government policy will be pushed if no worker’s voice is heard. Imagine the impact it would have, if there is a negative effect on workers when the policy is pushed.

Globally, worker’s views are generally repressed when the incumbent Government does not support the Labour Movement.

In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister, relations between the trade unions and the Government were on tenterhooks when she tried to reduce the power of trade unions. Consider what she said: “We always have to be aware of the enemy (referring to the trade unions) within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

Given such a militant environment, how are organisations going to get anything done?

Thankfully in Singapore, the Labour Movement enjoys good tripartite relations with the employers and the Government. This unique arrangement does not come easy. With a Government that supports the unions who are the voice of workers, bonds are built and projects move.

Won’t workers bear the brunt of negative economic policies if the Government does not have a effective voice for the workers being part of the Government? Conversely, is not Singapore a good example of how workers benefit from good policies that are implemented for the overall good of the Singapore economy?

The doctrine of the separation of powers is a good one, and in some cases yes, it is necessary to distinguish one power from another. In the union situation however, it may not be that bad a thing for one man to helm the union and hold a position of power in Cabinet also.






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