SINGAPORE - The labour movement unveiled two new leaders on Monday evening (April 23), naming Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon as deputy secretaries-general.
Mr Ng is widely expected to eventually take on the top role of secretary-general, replacing Mr Chan Chun Sing, who is likely to take on another ministerial role after a Cabinet reshuffle expected later this week.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that the reshuffle will be announced “in a day or two”. He had said earlier that the Cabinet reshuffle will involve almost all 16 ministries, but not all the ministers are moving to new ministries.
Speaking to the media on Monday, Mr Ng declined to say whether he will be stepping up as secretary-general.
But he later told The Straits Times: "I am always ready (to step up as secretary-general), when the moment arrives."
The new appointments come after the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on April 16 to request for suitable office holders to serve the labour movement.
In the letter, NTUC President Mary Liew wrote that "should PM require Brother Chan Chun Sing to return to Government in due course, may we request PM to let Brother Ng Chee Meng serve in the labour movement".
The letter goes on to request another office holder to serve as a liaison between the labour movement and government agencies in the execution of Industry Transformation Maps - the blueprints that map out how Singapore's various economic sectors should upgrade for the future through worker training, innovation and productivity.
In response, Mr Lee wrote to Ms Liew on Monday agreeing to release Mr Ng to serve in the labour movement on a part-time basis for now, and full-time from May 1 - a strong indication that Mr Ng will be leaving MOE to focus as NTUC leader then.
Mr Lee added that he has asked Dr Koh to serve in the labour movement on a part-time basis while "concurrently retaining relevant ministry appointments".
"I fully agree with you that the symbiotic relationship between the NTUC and the PAP has served us well since Singapore's founding, and that we should continue to strengthen both the leadership of the labour movement and this relationship," he said.
Strengthening the training and skills of working people and expanding the labour movement's outreach to new groups of workers are key priorities for the next phase of Singapore's development, Mr Lee added.
Speaking to the media on Monday, Mr Ng said the new role is a natural extension of his current 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 for the current realities, as well as preparing for the future."
His immediate priority is to go to the ground to talk to union leaders and understand better the aspirations and needs of workers, he added.
He is no stranger to labour issues. As second minister of transport, he has been interacting with union leaders representing workers in the aviation, transport and taxi industries, and has just returned from a retreat with the National Transport Workers' Union, he noted.
"They shared with me very candidly their anxieties of what technological disruption will bring. And through those conversations I could understand where they were coming from and encourage them to see that these disruptions are indeed opportunities for a well-placed country like ours to launch into new possibilities. And when these new possibilities can be realised it will benefit our workers in return."
He added that one way to uplift workers is through the implementation of the ITMs, with Dr Koh acting as a link between the labour movement and government agencies.
Speaking to the media, Dr Koh said ITMs must help Singaporeans take on jobs that are relevant for the future, and the unions play an important role in encouraging workers to take on new skills.
He said that as he was working on the plans for the ITMs over the past two years, he realised that there was a need to spread the message down to the workers on the ground, and so when the opportunity came to serve in the labour movement, he felt it would be a good way for him to contribute.
"As I've been doing the ITMs for the past two years or so I did realise that on top of just working with the employers and various industries and trade associations, there is a need for the ITMs to be more percolated down to the ground, especially to the workers and unions," he said.
"The ultimate aim (of the ITMs) is to transform the economy but more importantly create good jobs for Singaporeans so they are ready for the future."