When veteran minister Khaw Boon Wan was approached about setting up a healthcare workers' union while he was running National University Hospital (NUH), it felt like "a slap in my face", he said.
He thought he was doing a good job as an enlightened leader, treating all colleagues as equals and solving problems together with them.
"I could not understand why the workers should feel such a need to organise themselves. They must have felt the working conditions in NUH were awful," said Mr Khaw, who was chief executive of the hospital from 1985 to 1987.
He researched the Singapore labour movement, talked to unionised companies and unionists and discussed the proposal - raised by former National Trades Union Congress president Diana Chia, a staff nurse at Singapore General Hospital at the time - with his colleagues.
Mr Khaw, 66, who is now Transport Minister and Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, said he was soon convinced that the NTUC approach to the union movement was compatible with his personal approach to leadership - "they were both sides of the same coin".
His view is that workers and management are equals, "sharing a similar dream to build an organisation that lasts and that takes good care of its workers fairly".
Eventually, the National University Hospital Employees' Union was formed. It later merged with the Health Corporation of Singapore Staff Union to form the Healthcare Services Employees' Union.
Mr Khaw shared this story in an interview with NTUC website LabourBeat. It was published yesterday when he received NTUC's Medal of Honour, its highest May Day award this year, for his support for tripartism and workers' welfare.
He said he appreciated the award and his friendships with unionists, adding that he was receiving the medal on behalf of many colleagues, including the five healthcare workers who died trying to protect Singaporeans during the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in 2003.
In his time at various ministries, from health to national development, he looked to unionists for feedback on tough policies as they were being formulated, he said.
For example, the Proximity Housing Grant, which subsidises resale Housing Board flats for people living with or near their parents or children, came about after feedback from NTUC that young couples wanted to be near their parents so that their parents could help look after their children.
Support from all tripartite partners will be required as Singapore moves towards a car-lite future, Mr Khaw said. "Our strategy is to raise the competency level of our transport workers... Newer and better-paying jobs will be created along the way. The end result will be an even better commuter experience."