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Grooming of high trust leaders

Public acceptance of tough policies deemed necessary by pioneer generation ministers is often attributed to the rapport established between the leadership and people from all walks of life. As former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow once observed, the first generation of People's Action Party leaders "was purely grassroots".

The pursuit of broad-based support naturally led the party to form close links with the unions, particularly as its political rivals on the left were linked to the Malayan General Labour Union, which led over three-quarters of organised labour during the pre-Independence years. Those tumultuous years led moderate unionists to throw in their lot with the PAP: "We were two wings of the same political movement," as National Trades Union Congress founder Devan Nair had noted. Over the years, it was common for the leadership of the two organisations to periodically describe their relationship as "symbiotic".

Affirming the partnership at the PAP annual convention last Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said closer collaboration with unions would be "a key testing ground for us to identify and develop future leaders". While it was not found necessary for Mr Devan Nair to be part of the Cabinet, because of the close ties among the first generation of union and political leaders, the NTUC secretary-general's post has been held by a Cabinet minister since 1980. The latest effort to invigorate the linkage rests on the belief that unions have a critical role to play as economic disruptions take their toll on workers. If leaders are to retain their grassroot credibility, they must be part of efforts to solve real problems faced by groups, and not just frame pragmatic policies for the larger good.

Nurturing such trust will be a vital undertaking as the future of work is rocked by technology, globalisation and new business models. But trust in leadership is under siege, according to a global survey by American media company Viacom. Across 27 countries, just 2 per cent of people aged 30 and below said they were trustful of politicians during times of political turbulence.

A much wider demographic has to be addressed as disruptions flow through the economy. And as NTUC made constitutional amendments recently to represent all workers - be they professionals, managers or freelancers - PAP leaders are seeing it necessary to work with unions to forge trust among a much broader constituency. Just how trust is to be built depends on the parties involved. Sound argument and civic exhortations might not be sufficient for certain groups, like the young. They might feel less "nostalgia for a time when governments governed and leaders led", as an observer put it. In order to get them more involved in shaping the direction of the nation, one must widen the notion of people-leaders trust.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'Grooming of high trust leaders'. Subscribe