Labour's new man at the helm

Minister Chan Chun Sing's surprise entry into the labour movement is a sign that its political rejuvenation remains a national priority. One of the youngest ministers in Cabinet, he is poised to succeed Mr Lim Swee Say as National Trades Union Congress secretary-general when the latter retires in July next year. Filling that post with a Cabinet minister since 1980 reflects the importance placed on labour collectivism - an essential component of Singapore's unique tripartite framework. Under this umbrella, Government, employer groups and unions have managed to cooperate to ensure industrial peace in good times and in bad, like when Singapore was hit by recessions, oil shocks and financial crises.

Mr Chan steps up to the plate at NTUC at a challenging time, when advances in technology and globalisation are putting pressure on workers worldwide. As restructuring for a more productive economy picks up pace, so will the disruption to jobs and lives. What has largely shielded Singapore workers to date has been continued economic growth and a tight labour market, but there is no guarantee these conditions will prevail in the face of an uncertain global outlook.

With the stakes high, the quality of NTUC's leadership is critical to the credibility of both the movement and tripartism. Declining influence, for example, is a risk. In the United Kingdom, trade union membership has almost halved from the peak of over 13 million in 1979. Across the Atlantic, the share of the American public that approves of labour unions fell from 70 per cent in the 1960s to 53 per cent last year.

Here, the movement has remained relevant by, for example, playing a crucial role in advancing the cause of low-wage workers. It advocated the Progressive Wage Model, pushed for it to be made a licensing precondition, and lobbied for increments adopted by the National Wages Council.

As the share of blue-collar workers - the traditional union base - falls, the NTUC has had to fight to stay relevant by reaching out to more professionals, managers and executives (PMEs). The NTUC's target is to raise the share of PMEs in the resident labour force that it represents from the current one in five to one in four.

Far from managing decline, the NTUC seems intent on continued growth. The decision to send a key member of the fourth-generation leadership to till this ground is evidence of the labour movement's continued centrality. Success for Mr Chan and for the NTUC will hinge on persuading workers that tripartism continues to be in their best interests, and that the labour movement can and will adapt to meet their changing needs and aspirations.