Who will lead labour after Lim Swee Say?

Love him or hate him (or puzzle at his odd quips), Lim Swee Say has been a fixture in the Labour Movement for the last 8 years and has exercised considerable influence in this sphere. But now that he has announced his clear intention not to fill the post again, the question is: who will (and will it matter)?

Every NTUC Secretary-General since Devan Nair has held a cabinet position, often concurrently. I don’t expect that to change this time around. Why this is so is probably because of the longstanding relationships between the NTUC and the PAP, as an alliance between the two had formed during the struggle for independence and during the years after. Some say that the PAP controls the NTUC. Others say that the NTUC has clout in government. Perhaps both are true.

Either way, this means that the pool of candidates is not very large – look at the cabinet. The other heirs apparent over the years have faded away – Josephine Teo, Halimah Yaacob and Ong Ye Kung all once held key positions but are no longer with the movement.

Neither Deputy Secretary-General Heng Chee How nor the Assistant Secraties-General: Ms Cham Hui Fong, Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Ang Hin Kee and Mr Zainal Sapari seem to possess the political clout for the position.

In my reckoning, it seems possible that Josephine Teo may be positioned to take up the mantle, but at the same time she still doesn’t command the political power necessary for the position. It would be a step backwards as well, since she had already left the NTUC to fulfill her role as Minister of State.

Grace Fu seems another possibility, since she is also a minister in the PMO and well exposed to the private sector, but an another interesting candidate pops up within the cabinet.

Chan Chun Sing.

Kee chiu.

Kee chiu.

Whatever you want to say about him, he has a certain demeanour that the rank-and-file can understand; something that reminds me of Lim Swee Say – very “on the ground” (okay lah, “low class” if you’re a hater), in spite of a career as a SAF scholar. Moreover Chan Chun Sing was the chosen replacement for Lim Swee Say in my Buona Vista constituency. Who is to say that history will not repeat itself (because it is going to be the same people making these decisions)?

Chan Chun Sing as NTUC Secretary-General will throw up synergies with his current portfolio as Minister for Social and Family development. Hopefully his constant exposure to those who are suffering the most will mean that he will find avenues to raise wages to sustainable levels as NTUC Sec-Gen.

We’ll have to wait for October to see.

5 Ways to Interpret Lim Swee Say’s latest CPF Gobbledegook

Minister in the PMO and Labour Chief Lim Swee Say’s latest statement about CPF has been feeding the flames of Mount Facebook since it was reported yesterday evening.

His easily-misinterpreted statement, delivered off-the-cuff on the sidelines of a Singapore Model Parliament event, has left many fuming, some puzzled, and others scrambling to defend the man.

The Man. photo: cabinet.gov.sg

The specific quote in question:

“Instead of thinking about whether you can spend your savings in the CPF at the age of 55, I think we should think about how can we help our Singaporeans to continue to remain employed, to continue to earn a good living, continue to have good jobs, and at the same time to continue to contribute to the CPF because the more money they have in CPF, the longer they defer the use of the CPF — this will mean they will have more for retirement.”

Mr Lim made a daring grab for the mantle of Captain Obvious from NMP Eugene Tan by, among other things, saying that people who put more into their account (by working past the ‘retirement age’) will have more money for retirement. There was also this nearly pointless quote: “You have your money, you have the account, and you receive the statement, the account on a regular basis. So, you know how much money you have in the CPF”.

Here’s five ways we can interpret his overall statement as reported:

1) You probably won’t have enough money in your CPF to retire, so it’s best to defer retirement. Ditch that pipe dream.

If this is true, that’s pretty in your face. While I personally agree that retirement is a myth these days, Mr Lim is known for making bizarre and confusing statements like “Cheaper Better Faster”, which took months for NTUC to clarify and is still being misinterpreted today, the “Little Frog” story from GE 2011, “better, betterer, betterest”, and of course, “I feel so rich”, the legendary proportions of which doubtless will colour every statement about CPF Mr Lim will ever make.

2) Those who don’t have enough money to retire should continue working.

Blunt, but true, if that’s what he meant. It doesn’t bode well coming from the mouth of the labour chief, though. This corroborates with the fact that some 50% of CPF Members today cannot meet their Minimum Sum and will not have enough to retire on.

3) Don’t spend your CPF savings on other things (like housing and education) so you have enough for retirement.

If that’s what he was trying to say, then it’s terrible advice. This interpretation, however is a little far fetched, although the reporter’s opening line “The best way for Singaporeans to prepare for retirement is to use less of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) money when they are young, said Labour Chief Lim Swee Say” lends some weight to this.

4) Specifically saying that younger Singaporeans should stay employed and earn more to have more for retirement.

It’s good advice, and a friend in NTUC tried to this as a defence by bringing up the example of someone she knew who was out of a job for several years before he was 40. This, however, doesn’t seem to be what Mr Lim is talking about at all.

5) People should plan to continue working and leave monies in the CPF account between 55 to the Drawdown Age (currently 63), even though they can, by right, withdraw monies in excess of their Minimum Sum at age 55.

This is possibly the best interpretation for Mr Lim, should he want to come out and clarify his statement. It makes sense, is sound advice, and doesn’t sound prescriptive. Too bad he totally botched the delivery, as he often does.

Here’s the kicker: in the same interview, Mr Lim was also reported to have said that “the labour movement has been watching the debate closely, and wants to ensure that what is discussed does not create confusion among workers and union leaders.”

Looks like he’s got some catching up to do.

UPDATE 23 June, 10:15pm: A clarification has been made on what Mr Lim said. It seems that his use of the word “young” to describe people aged 55 resulted in mass confusion. Point 5 is our winner.

Confusion over minimum wage

When several MPs called for a minimum wage to be implemented, Lim Swee Say proudly declared that we do not need a minimum wage because we already “have a minimum wage model” which is “more than a minimum wage”. He who brought us such gems as “cheaper, better, faster”, “upturn the downturn” and “the little frog, deaf to all criticisms” can add one more feather to his cap.

While the exact meaning of what he just said remains completely open to interpretation, he did give a few important clues: that some odd form of minimum wage we have in Singapore has got something to do with WIS, something to do with WTS and something to do with NTUC’s progressive wage plan.

Only WIS really supplements the incomes of low-wage earners, and then only if they are over 35. This is all paid for by the state instead of by companies and really doesn’t encourage companies to raise wages. In spite of Singapore’s aversion to state welfarism, it seems that WIS really bucks the trend. The quantum is small, and a large portion of it isn’t cash in hand.

WTS helps encourage workers training, which is good and right, but really does nothing that a minimum wage sets out to do.

The progressive wage model really just sets up a “promotion” pathway for low-wage workers. The lowest paid don’t actually get paid more – they need to be “promoted” in order to get any increase in their wages. No “promotion” no wage increase. Nevermind that this scheme has had to be almost force-fed to different sectors, the plan is taking so long to roll out, it seems that some labour MPs are thinking that they’ll need to legislate it to force companies to buy in.

Would our labour chief care to elaborate on his cryptic message?