Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng looks set to be the next labour chief, after an announcement on Monday (April 23) that he will be joining the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) full time next month.
In a letter to NTUC president Mary Liew, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he has asked current NTUC chief Chan Chun Sing to return to the Government. He also acceded to an NTUC request to release Mr Ng to serve the unions.
Mr Ng was named NTUC deputy secretary-general on Monday. He will serve on a part-time basis for now and full time from May 1.
In a letter to Mr Lee dated April 16, Ms Liew also asked for another office-holder to act as a liaison between NTUC and government agencies in the execution of the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). These are blueprints for various economic sectors to upgrade through worker training, innovation and productivity improvement.
In his reply to her on Tuesday, Mr Lee said he has asked Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon to step into this role, serving NTUC part-time while retaining ministry appointments.
Dr Koh also became deputy secretary-general of NTUC on Monday.
In his letter, Mr Lee said he fully agreed with Ms Liew that the symbiotic relationship between NTUC and the People's Action Party had served Singapore well since independence, adding that "we should continue to strengthen both the leadership of the labour movement and this relationship".
Enhancing the training and skills of workers while expanding the labour movement's outreach to new groups of workers are key priorities going forward, he added.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Mr Ng declined to say whether he would take over as secretary-general soon. But he later told The Straits Times: "I am always ready (to step up as secretary-general), when the moment arrives."
He said the new role is a natural continuation of his work as Education Minister: "In MOE, I am happily educating and nurturing our young for the future. In the labour movement, it's really an extension of that mission, making the lives of our workers better through lifelong learning (to prepare for) current realities, as well as... for the future."
It is not yet clear who will take over Mr Ng's role at the Ministry of Education (MOE). Mr Lee said on Tuesdaythat he will announce the Cabinet reshuffle today or tomorrow.
While Mr Ng has not worked in NTUC before this, he has, as Second Transport Minister, been interacting with union leaders and workers in the aviation, transport and taxi industries. He just returned from a retreat with the National Transport Workers' Union, he noted.
The workers shared with him anxieties over disruptions in their sector. He encouraged them to see the disruptions as opportunities "for a well-placed country like ours to launch into new possibilities".
Of his new role, Dr Koh said his work on ITMs made him aware of the need to spread the transformation message to workers on the ground. So when the opportunity came to serve in NTUC, he saw it as a good way to contribute, he added.
In a Facebook post last night, Mr Chan welcomed the pair to NTUC.
"We will benefit greatly from Chee Meng's experience in MOE and the various leadership roles he has assumed in his career."
He added: "Poh Koon, on the other hand, with his experience in MTI, will be an asset in the areas of training and helping to operationalise the ITMs across our labour movement stakeholders."
Veteran unionist K. Karthikeyan said Mr Ng will need time to win the broad support of workers.
"It's a good move to introduce him as deputy secretary-general before he takes on the full role of labour chief, so that the people accept him when he takes on that leadership role. Given his enthusiasm, I think he can learn fast," he said.
• Additional reporting by Yuen Sin