Don the Zorro mask one more time? Labour chief Lim Swee Say explains why he will do it again.

Really. He will do it again.

Martino Tan| September 06, 08:59 AM


This is one of Labour Chief Lim Swee Say's happiest week in office.

The NTUC Secretary-General's labour of love for more than seven years have come to fruition.

Some 56 unionised cleaning companies are currently paying their 20,000 cleaners at least $1,000 monthly under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) scheme, which took effect early this week. As they gain better skills, they could earn at least $1,600 as supervisors.

A total of 1,001 cleaning businesses, including the 56 early movers, with a workforce of 52,000 cleaners, have been licensed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and they will have to follow the PWM as well.

The central fact of politics has always been the quality of leadership under the pressure of great forces.

And Lim, who is also the Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, has achieved his aim of helping low wage workers amid the great forces of globalisation and outsourcing. chatted with Lim over coffee at NTUC Foodfare to ask him some serious questions, such as NTUC's leadership succession plans and not so serious but equally important questions, such as if he would don the Zorro mask again.

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.


1. What is your leadership philosophy?

1. Never say die. Dare to be different.

2. You must be prepared to live with the weaknesses of the people in order to have access to their strengths.

3. At the end of the day, you must believe in something, with everyone working together and sharing the same beliefs. External motivations can only last in the short term, but internal motivation is the one that will burn forever. Hence, the challenge is to keep finding something that we all believe strongly in, so that the team can keep the fire burning.


2. In a recent Zaobao interview, you said that you will step down as NTUC’s secretary-general when you turn 62 on July 13, 2016. Is that confirmed?

In the labour movement, we never use the word "retirement". Labour movement is a place whereby everybody can be somebody. You can be a worker, but they can all step forward and be somebody. For example, our union leaders are men in the street -- worker in the factory, worker in the hotel, but they step forward because they believe that they can do something extra to help others.

So labour leadership is very important. If we are not able to draw in people with the heart and passion, to keep renewing and strengthening our labour leadership, then eventually the movement will slow down, it will die.

The labour movement has a strong sense of survival for a simple reason. If you look at the labour movements around the world, many of them have weakened over the past decade. Some of them are so weak that they can no longer help to shape the future. So the labour leadership renewal development is our top priority. Because people like us come and go, but the labour movement must stay forever. People can grow old, but the labour movement cannot grow old.

And there is a strategy. We call this labour leadership renewal the "three flows".

"Flow in" - We have to keep finding people with the right motivation to flow into our labour leadership.

"Flow up" - When they join us, they must be given the platform or opportunity to move up, but not in terms of promotion or pay. We don't pay our union leaders a lot.

"Flow on" - If you "flow up", those on top (the labour leadership) must "flow on".

So if you keep doing "flow in, flow up, flow on", the labour leadership can remain strong forever.

But we never use the term "flow out". Once a labour leader, forever a labour leader. Your heart will be with the labour movement. The leaders may no longer hold the key appointments, the Union President and General-Secretary, for instance, but they can still play a role as advisers and consultants to guide the next generation of leaders.

In my case, all labour movement leaders at the age of 62, will "flow on" from our central committee (NTUC's highest level of elected leaders) under the constitution. That applies to the Sec-Gen too, no exceptions.


3. A number of key NTUC leaders have left the Labour movement (Josephine Teo, Halimah Yacob, and Ong Ye Kung). Do you think a NTUC leadership team is in place for the next decade?

Is the next generation ready?

First, I must say that we are very proud of the labour leadership. Because of this commitment to constant renewal and upgrading, we have been able to produce very good people.

Josephine Teo is a product of our leadership development. Yes, it is a loss for the labour leadership when Prime Minister decided to ask her to be an office-holder. But it is a gain for the labour movement. Because you now have somebody sitting at the Ministry of Finance, a Senior Minister of State, who embraces our values and our culture.

For example, if we need certain policy and funding support, we have one more person in the cabinet who understands us and will hopefully speak up for us.

Josephine Teo, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Transport

Source: Josephine Teo Facebook


Halimah first became the MOS (Minister of State) and she did such a good job that she was selected to become the Speaker of the Parliament. It is also a plus for the labour movement. It gives the labour leadership a lot of pride that Sister Halimah is now the Speaker in the House. Sister Halimah is still an adviser of the labour movement. She attends our events and functions and continue to give inputs.

Halimah Yacob, Speaker of the Parliament

Source: Halimah Yacob Facebook


Of course there are times we lost some of those who "flow on". Like Ong Ye Kung who left for the private sector.

Yes, it is a loss for the labour movement. But at the same time, it continues to be a gain. Ong Ye Kung today is the Chairman of our e2i (Employment and Employability Institute). With his private sector connections, he brought with him a different perspective.

Ong Ye Kung, Director at Keppel Corporation

Source: Ong Ye Kung Facebook (Read's previous interview with Ong)


My point here is we look at this "flow on" not as something negative. It's like your blood transfusion. If you don't overdo it, your body becomes stronger with fresh blood. I think it is the same for the labour leadership.

As we "flow on", our key priority must be to ensure the "flow in" and the "flow up". I must say that the signs are very encouraging. So today, all our assistant secretary-generals are in their late 30s and early 40s. In other words, they would have a long runway ahead of them to keep learning and lead.


4. What are the qualities that the next NTUC Sec-Gen should possess?

The most important thing is that he or she must have the heart for the workers.

I joined the labour movement because of my belief that we should do the best that we can for workers in Singapore. This is so that all the efforts made by the economic agencies in job creation can benefit our workers.

I think the next Sec-Gen's areas of priority and focus may be different. But I hope that it is still all about the workers at the end of the day.

How do we help Singaporeans have a good job?

This is what I really hope for.

A person with a strong heart, who really believe in the cause of the workers.

Secondly, a person with a strong head, because at the end of the day, there are some things that we will fight for the workers and yet at the same time there are some things we need to get the workers to play their part.

So the heart must be strong and the head must also be strong, in the sense we make sure that whatever we do is sustainable. We can try to be popular in the short term. But what is popular in the short term may not be sustainable in the long term. Eventually you will fail in your duty. So you need someone with a strong head.

Lastly, someone with a pair of strong hands. Why? The labour movement is not about policy, theory, or concept. It is about making change happen on the ground.

They are not strong hands to "strangle people", but strong hands to pull people together.

Take the cleaning sector, for example, that is now under the PWM scheme. None of this would have happened if not for the strong collaboration between the tripartite partners. NTUC can't make this happen alone. We have to be able to draw everyone together -- the government, the employers, the unions, the workers. everybody come together.

Therefore, [quip float="pqleft"] I hope my future Sec-Gen will have a heart, stronger than my heart, a head stronger than my head, and a pair of hands stronger than my pair of hands. [/quip]






5. What is the real story behind the Zorro mask?

Source: MyCar forums


I give you a simple illustration about having the interests of the Singaporean workers at heart. On Nurses' Day, our Healthcare Services Employees' Union (HSEU), asked me, "Sec-Gen, can you come to our Nurses' Day to give our nurses encouragement? I said 'Sure'."

So I arrived on site. The management of the hospital were hiding in the corner. Sec-Gen, we are going to give nurses a surprise. We are all going to dress up as characters.

So they ask me, "Are you game enough to join us?", and I said, 'Of course!' I would do anything for the nurses and let them have a good laugh."

So the management looked at all the costumes. I told them if they could give me something simple, as I did not have sufficient time to change. They said Zorro is the easiest. You just put on the the cape and the mask. So I became Zorro and everyone had a good laugh and good fun.

But I was flamed on the social media -- "Lim Swee Say think so highly of himself. Want to be hero."

To me, if you were to ask me would I do it again. I would do it again. Why? Because between trying to avoid all these flaming by people, and making the nurses happy and laugh, the choice is clear. I think that's what the labour movement is all about. Everything is about being worker-centric.


Photos by Jonathan Lim.

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