SINGAPORE - People's Action Party (PAP) ministers and backbenchers will take on more roles in NTUC's unions and associations, as the two organisations move to collaborate more deeply.
This latest development to strengthen the 63-year-old partnership between the ruling party and the labour movement comes as workers here grapple with job losses arising from economic disruption.
Separately, some younger union leaders have raised questions on whether the relationship, forged from 1954 when the PAP was founded, is necessary.
Labour MP Zainal Sapari told The Straits Times some have queried the need to work closely with the PAP. He added: "Institutional knowledge must be passed on to the next generation".
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) said on Tuesday (Nov 21) that ministers and other office-holders - including ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries - will take on advisory roles in its various arms.
These include its unit for freelancers and self-employed people (U FSE), social enterprises and organisations for migrant workers.
All 82 PAP MPs, "where possible", will also be advisers in the 58 unions, two affiliated associations and 62 professional associations and guilds under NTUC, it said.
Currently, there are 71 PAP MPs who are advisers to unions.
It is the first time that NTUC will actively pair professional associations - known as U Associates - with advisers from the PAP. U Associates, which represent professions such as engineers and sales professionals, have seen their memberships swell as more Singaporeans join the white-collar trades.
NTUC did not say how many members it has, but says it "serves" over 1.25 million people through its various unions, U Associates, U FSE and unit for small and medium enterprises.
The announcement comes two days after the PAP's annual convention on Sunday (Nov 19), where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had called for the "symbiotic relationship" between the party and the labour movement to be strengthened. While older union leaders had understood the relationship well, the same understanding must be nurtured with new generations of union leaders, he said.
In its statement, NTUC said it will continue to mobilise the broad middle ground to support the Government in policies that will serve the long-term interests of workers in Singapore, while in turn, the PAP must always be on the side of working people.
Mr Lee had said that Singapore's fourth-generation ministers will be working more closely with the NTUC, with each of them taking on a specific partnership with NTUC.
Some of Singapore's fourth-generation ministers include Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, and Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.
The labour movement and ministers did not elaborate to queries from The Straits Times on the nature of the specific partnerships.
But Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who also chairs the Future Economy Council, told The Straits Times that the council will work closely with unions and companies. "In this phase of restructuring, where change is rapid, the trust and confidence built up over the years in our tripartite relations will be a key asset as we navigate the changes ahead," he said.
One sign of the increased collaboration emerged last Wednesday (Nov 15), where about 1,000 unionists, company officials and government officials attended a dialogue with NTUC secretary-general Chan Chun Sing and five other Cabinet ministers, including Second Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo, Mr Ong and Mr Ng.
It is the first time in the past 10 years that such a session was organised in conjunction with NTUC's Ordinary Delegates' Conference.
Labour representatives said they hope the greater involvement of PAP leaders would help better reflect workers' needs in Parliament.
Mr Alex Chua, president of the Singapore Sales Professional Association - a U Associate - said one issue his members face is that while sales professionals cut across all commercial sectors, they are underrepresented in the industry transformation maps. His group has over 400 members and 7,000 associate members.
Mr Zainal, the executive secretary of Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union, said the recent dialogue was an important signal to union leaders that the ministers are interested in engaging the labour movement.
"Given the size of our labour movement representation, it's important that the government engages it in the policymaking process," he said.
There is already an attachment programme where civil servants work as industrial relations officers in union branches to better understand how unions work.
United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries general secretary Tan Richard said that if younger ministers or civil servants do not understand the role of unions and union leaders, it would be difficult to have continuity of the tripartite relationship that has helped Singapore weather crises so far.
"If you don't know how people work, how will you work with them?" he said.