Pressing on with wage restructuring

The appointment of DBS Group Holdings chairman Peter Seah as the new head of the National Wages Council (NWC) marks the passing of the baton from one steady hand to another.

Mr Seah succeeds Professor Lim Pin, whose chairmanship of the NWC from 2001 to 2014 coincided with Singapore's passage through rough economic weather that peaked with the global storm of 2008.

Prof Lim's contributions during his tenure included an emphasis on flexible wages to rescue the economy from the vestiges of rigid wage models. By encouraging companies to adopt performance-driven pay packages, the NWC helped businesses to adapt to global and local volatility, shielding jobs in the process. The challenge was to expand the economic space for workers. It would have been folly to shrink it in a misguided attempt to extract from businesses what the market could not and would not provide. In this regard, Prof Lim bore witness to the tough realism of Singapore's tripartite model.

Equally, however, he was adamant that companies should not take workers for granted. Such mindfulness has grown over the years. The introduction of guidelines for minimum wage increases for low-wage workers revealed how a sense of equity did not have to run up against the grain of market-driven pragmatism.

Mr Seah's experience in the financial sector, which is often at the cutting edge of sudden and massive market shifts, equips him to read emerging trends accurately. Also crucial is the task of building consensus to pre-empt adverse consequences for employers and workers. Associated already with the council, he will understand the intricacies of reconciling the tension between boosting profit and protecting workers in the midst of changes, whether cyclical or structural. One cardinal principle that he inherits is that wage increases must not outstrip productivity. Reform and restructuring help translate that principle into everyday competitive practice.

Two concerns stand out at the beginning of the NWC's leadership transition. First, the prospects for local professionals, managers and executives. Even their levels of skill do not buffer them from the swings of a globalised economy which cannot shut out foreigners.

The second area of concern is the equitable treatment of older workers. They need and want to work, but many of them are constrained by a lack of skills or confidence. Keeping them employable is a demographic necessity in ageing Singapore. Even as Mr Seah inherits a model that works well on the whole, the new NWC chief will want to put a fresh imprint on issues that impinge on the long-term fortunes of workers.