A man who believes that having a job is the best welfare

It should come as no surprise that in explaining his philosophy on helping workers, retired manpower minister Lim Swee Say would refer to a horse and a river.

Mr Lim, 63, known for his ability to crunch economic concepts into memorable catchphrases, said: "I've told workers frankly, and I have told them a few times: 'Look, we can bring a horse to the river, but we cannot make the horse drink from the river'."

What he meant was that the Government and labour movement "must do everything we can", but workers must meet them halfway, he explained.

"If there is no river, we need to create a river. But at the end of the day, we need the workers to play their part and put in the efforts to take on better skills and better jobs," he said in an interview published yesterday in LabourBeat, a blog run by the labour movement.

The former NTUC secretary-general has been given the highest honour at the May Day Awards this year - Distinguished Comrade of Labour.

Among his contributions, he was credited for the pivotal role he played in helping workers weather two financial crises.

He was put to the test soon after joining NTUC, as the Asian financial crisis occurred in 1997 and about 29,000 workers were retrenched in that one year - "a shock" to the labour movement, he said. That was when NTUC realised there were limited avenues of support for retrenched and unemployed workers here at the time, he added.

TURNING POINT

It was a defining moment not just for me as a newcomer, but even for union leaders who had been in the labour movement for some time.

MR LIM SWEE SAY, on the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that led to 29,000 workers being retrenched that year.

The crisis caused a "fundamental shift" in the way the labour movement looked at skills development, and it started to put in place skills certification and employment support systems.

"I would say that it was a defining moment not just for me as a newcomer, but even for union leaders who had been in the labour movement for some time."

By the time the global financial crisis of 2008 hit Singapore, the Employment and Employability Institute and Workforce Development Agency, now known as Workforce Singapore, was ready to help retrenched workers retrain and find employment.

"More importantly, tripartite partners were able to rally together very quickly, learning from what we had gone through during the Asian financial crisis."

Mr Lim also recalled in his interview with the blog how his experiences growing up in the 1960s shaped his belief that a job is the best welfare, and full employment is the best protection for workers.

It was common to see people struggling to find jobs and it was his boyhood dream simply to have a good job. "In my case, my dreams came true and now helping workers is something close to my heart," he said.

Even so, joining the labour movement in 1996 was a wake-up call for him, he recounted.

In one of his first encounters with union leaders, he spoke about how Singapore had come a long way and cited the fact that per capita income had reached $24,000 a year at that point.

Before he could complete his sentence, a union leader told him that such statistics did not matter to workers, who would just ask: "Where is my $24,000?"

Mr Lim said this encounter made him realise that it was important to translate Singapore's overall success into progress for the individual. "In other words, yes, we can talk about how well we have done as an economy, about how well we have done to raise incomes, but at the end of the day, we must ask ourselves: What does it mean for the individual?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 06, 2018, with the headline 'A man who believes that having a job is the best welfare'. Print Edition | Subscribe