Labour movement is in my blood: Lim Swee Say

Right: Former manpower minister Lim Swee Say holding a miniature figure of himself that was presented to him. Far right: Mr Lim kisses his wife after giving a speech, as current Manpower Minister Josephine Teo looks on.
Mr Lim kisses his wife after giving a speech, as current Manpower Minister Josephine Teo looks on.ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO
Right: Former manpower minister Lim Swee Say holding a miniature figure of himself that was presented to him. Far right: Mr Lim kisses his wife after giving a speech, as current Manpower Minister Josephine Teo looks on.
Former manpower minister Lim Swee Say holding a miniature figure of himself that was presented to him.ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO

On a Saturday morning over 12 years ago, Mrs Josephine Teo, then a human resource director at NTUC, received a phone call from her boss Lim Swee Say, asking if he could meet her and her husband.

The reason was that she had been asked to stand as a People's Action Party candidate in the 2006 General Election, but had not yet made up her mind if she should take the plunge. Soon after that call, Mr Lim showed up at Mrs Teo's doorstep to answer any questions she and her husband might have about life in politics.

"I eventually decided to step forward; Swee Say had a part in it. So if tripartite partners or MOM-ers ever get upset with me for what I have to do as Manpower Minister, you know who to blame - at least partially," quipped Mrs Teo, who succeeded Mr Lim as Manpower Minister this month.

More seriously, she added, anyone who has worked with Mr Lim "would recognise this very special characteristic, which is, when he has decided something is important or the right thing to do, he will go all out to get it done, and he does not hold back".

In a tribute to Mr Lim yesterday, she highlighted how, as labour chief, he would encourage hostile companies that resisted unionisation to get to know the unions via memberships for their staff.

He also came up with breakthrough approaches to age-old problems, such as implementing a progressive wage model instead of a minimum wage.

...anyone who has worked with Mr Lim "would recognise this very special characteristic, which is, when he has decided something is important or the right thing to do, he will go all out to get it done, and he does not hold back".

The cause of workers is clearly one that Mr Lim feels deeply about.

In his farewell speech to the 1,600 staff of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and its statutory boards yesterday, Mr Lim recounted how, when he left the post of NTUC secretary-general in 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him he would head a ministry next, but did not specify which.

"Quietly I was hoping he would assign me to MOM, but I wasn't too hopeful because it had never happened before, for a secretary-general of NTUC to become manpower minister," he said.

A few weeks later, he said, he was told to go to the Istana, and Mr Lee casually mentioned: "Swee Say, I'm thinking of posting you to MOM."

"I was feeling very good but then, all of a sudden, I realised he had not said he was assigning me to MOM.

"He had said he was 'thinking of' it. I didn't want to take a chance. So I sent him an e-mail saying, 'Dear Prime Minister, thank you so much for assigning me to MOM'," Mr Lim said with a laugh.

Looking back, he said, his three years as manpower minister were among the most challenging but also most meaningful and rewarding of his life.

Urging the audience to find internal motivation and passion for their work, he got emotional as he said: "The labour movement is in my blood. It will never go away." But he quickly made a joke about it, saying: "Jo said I would cry. I said I would not cry. So that was not counted, OK?"

Yasmine Yahya

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2018, with the headline 'Labour movement is in my blood: Lim Swee Say'. Print Edition | Subscribe