PAP should be wary of being too intrusive

The People's Action Party turned 63 on Nov 21 last week.

As it heads into its 64th year, it might want to think of the lyrics of the old Beatles song and ask voters: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64."

Its party convention on Nov 19, Sunday, was both a rallying event and a sombre occasion with some serious messages from party secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong for party cadres and members.

He spoke about governance challenges such as the need to raise taxes and the challenges of running the MRT system. These were no doubt statements he had to make as leader of the government.

He also stressed the need for the PAP to strengthen its links with the labour movement NTUC. This will be done in two ways: one, the new generation of ministers will work more closely with the NTUC, with each of them taking on a specific role; and two, more PAP MPs will be given advisory roles in unions and professional bodies.

This statement was made by Mr Lee as party leader, and it shows the PAP's determination to deepen and broaden its institutional links with the NTUC.

As my colleague Elgin Toh wrote in today's Straits Times, the move comes at a time when workers are expected to face job insecurity from economic disruption. Stronger government-union ties can help provide a more seamless job safety net.

But in choosing to extend its reach to professional organisations, the PAP may be over-stepping the bounds of what professionals desire. If the PAP spreads its tentacles too far into professionals' work domains, it may face a backlash.

The Straits Times reported that PAP ministers and backbencherswill be taking on more roles in NTUC's unions and associations, such as advisory roles in its "unit for freelancers and self-employed people, social enterprises and organisations for migrant workers."

The report added: "All 82 PAP MPs, "where possible", will also be advisers in the 58 unions, two affiliated associations and 62 professional associations and guilds under NTUC, it said. Currently, there are 71 PAP MPs who are advisers to unions."

The decision to bring professional organisations under the NTUC umbrella was made a few years ago. It was a way to reach out to PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) in the workforce and those who worked for non-unionised, smaller companies.

The NTUC U Associate Programme as it is called, started in 2011. It now includes associations in sectors from finance, human resource, project management, marketing, engineering, psychotherapists and administrative professionals.

There are clear benefits for professional organisations to hook up with NTUC, which can offer its partners career and skills progression programmes and leadership training. Professionals are workers after all and benefit from being part of the union network.

But extending that link beyond NTUC to the PAP is a different matter. In one fell swoop, these professional organisations now risk being viewed as partisan bodies, aligned with a particular political party. This may not be a desirable position for a professionals' organisation, especially those that also serve as accreditation bodies.

To be sure, some organisations will welcome the access to government resources and attention that this association with PAP MPs brings. Others finding it hard to recruit leaders may also welcome it. At least one also said it had asked to have a PAP MP as advisor to lead it.

Some professional organisations are also members of regional or global confederations. Appointing PAP MPs or ministers as "advisors" to these organisations may complicate their regional ties, just as the Football of Association of Singapore (FAS) ran into problems in 2015 with the global football governing body FIFA for its politically-appointed leaders. FAS then changed its constitution and held elections for its council members. Not complying would make it ineligible to take part in international competitions.

Quite apart from potentially complicating these professional organisations' institutional links, the move to appoint PAP MPs to these bodies also speaks poorly of talent management in Singapore.

Is Singapore so starved of talent that the same group of 82 PAP MPs have to perform so many roles?

They are MPs; serve on Government Parliamentary Committees; act as grassroots advisors to the People's Association network of organisations; advise trade unions; advise or lead national sports associations; run town councils; and many hold full-time jobs.

So what would explain the move to add to PAP MPs' responsibilities and appoint them as advisors to professional associations?

If the decision was motivated by a wish to extend the PAP's strong guiding hand beyond workers' unions to white-collar professionals' bodies, then I think PAP leaders may have misread the national mood.

Whether worker or professional, the mood among voters these days is for a less intrusive and more inclusive government. A soft touch and gentle support will be appreciated.

Trying to lock professional bodies within the PAP's strong embrace may not.


Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong writes a weekly blog on Saturdays at www.straitstimes.com/opinion