What keeps Chan Chun Sing up at night?

By May 2, 2016Current, Work

At a recent SGFuture townhall event that the Unscrambled team attended, someone in the audience asked Chan Chun Sing: “What keeps you awake at night?”, to which the father of three cleverly answered:

“Many things keep me up at night, including my young baby!”

Photo from NTUC



Jokes aside, the question is a pertinent one. His worries, as the Secretary-General (Sec-Gen) of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), are the worries of the workforce, and that in essence includes all of us.

At 46 years old, Chan Chun Sing’s experience with the working world is not uncommon from many of his generation. He served in the Singapore Army for 24 years, climbing the ranks all the way until he became Chief of Army in 2010. He then left his position to stand for Parliament in 2011, and has been a Member of Parliament (and a Minister) since then.

Chan is almost your classic old-school middle-aged man or uncle if you’re feeling chummy today. His life story is the same as most from his peers, from a generation where working decades in a single establishment is the norm. However, this old-school man, who still keeps to his military look with non-existent sideburns and shirts collared to his throat, has been dealt with the reality of change — that is, the change of the working world.

As the Sec-Gen addressed the media on his May Day message in an intimate session at One Marina Boulevard last Thursday, he seemed unusually subdued. The ex-Chief of Army is known for his usually energetic and passionate speeches, accompanied with animated hand-gestures and the occasional joke, and yet in a room filled with 20-odd people, his voice was only slightly louder than a whisper.

May Day has traditionally been an important day for the Singapore Labour Movement and all unions around the world, it’s safe to say that Chan has his hands full and his mind occupied.

May Day 2016, especially, is significant on many counts. It’s Chan’s first May Day after winning more than 90% of the votes at the closed-door election at the National Delegates Congress last October. It’s also an unusually tough year with news of economic downturn, companies closing or retrenching, affecting not just the rank-and-file, but also the PMEs. It’s also a new era in the landscape of work, where freelancing and contract work is becoming increasingly common, and also where disruption is fueling innovation and changes in almost all industries. It’s unusual times, indeed.

With the economic downturn, Singapore’s workforce is at the precipice of change. Industries that were the backbone of our economic success in the 70s and 80s, like manufacturing and construction, have now hit an all time low, while new sunrise industries like information technology and retail, are struggling to find fresh blood to meet their needs. The largest group of workers struggling are in Chan’s generation — people in their 40s and 50s are quickly becoming displaced as their skill sets become obsolete. Singapore needs a reboot, and fast.

During the media briefing, Chan’s message was clear:

The world has changed, and the Labour Movement has to change with it.

What workers want and need in 2016, spear-headed by enabling technology, innovative new business models, and a skepticism borne from the economic slowdown and retrenchment news, is vastly different from the baby-boomers’ world. Workers are more likely to attempt drastic career changes, spend less time working for a single company, and pursue career development opportunities and a sense of purpose rather than a fat paycheck.

The employee-employer relationships have also evolved, with the estimated figure of 200,000 freelancers rapidly increasing and more variations of freelance and independent work growing by the day. After all, what is stopping a high-ranking executive from driving a GrabCar on the weekends, or a creative professional quitting her agency work to pursue independent contract work instead?

The centre of all these changes has been the workers’ need to possess a more diverse skill set. As a Forbes article on the changing world of work states:

“The old economy would lead you to believe that you should pick one job, work hard for the next 40 years at that company, and then retire. Not the new economy. The more diverse your skill set, the more opportunities come your way.”

Part of the answer to this is Skillsfuture, which increases our government budget by $1 billion every year from now to 2020. The other part would be the provision of suitable courses for adults, such as the NTUC x NTU collaboration and the Government’s commitment towards the $200 million NTUC-Education and Training Fund (NETF) as unveiled at this year’s May Day Rally.


Chan’s idea of a reinvigorated and updated Labour Movement hasn’t detracted from their focus — unions and tripartism remain the heart of this “Unusual Labour Movement”— but the needs of freelancers, working parents, and PMEs are much more integral to NTUC’s role than ever. The union membership has to evolve into a more fluid and dynamic concept, from rigid groups with picket fences and FairPrice benefits to any worker keen to become more resilient, future-ready, and needs a helping hand to do it.

This is what he had to say at the media briefing:

“So in the new labour movement, we will see the unions remaining as the mainstay, whereby we provide the traditional union services to our members, from welfare benefits to placement training and so forth. Then you will see us stepping up our effort to bring services to the growing pool of PMEs, their needs will require us to expand our services in terms of training and development opportunities, networking opportunities, career placement for a very different group of people. At the same time, you will see us stepping up our effort to work with the SME bosses to outreach to the workers in the SMEs which comprise a big part of our economy.

Then you look at the market changes and how the economy is developing, you will see a growing pool of freelancers and contract workers. They may not fall into the traditional definition of the employer-employee relationship, but from the labour movement’s perspective, we feel that we must also extend services to this growing group of people, in particular in the area of legal and financial modules.

So if you look at the new labour movement, you will find that the entire labour movement will comprise of unions, U Associates, U SME partners, and also services for the freelancers and contract workers.“

With all these changes, no wonder Chan spoke with an unusual intensity and with a sense of urgency to us at the May Day media briefing. His earnestness to want to spread the message further was obvious. And it is not just about NTUC’s #BeMore May Day campaign, it is more about how he wants all the working people in Singapore to realise that we now live in unusual times, and that NTUC is poised to be the Unusual Labour Movement to help them along.

Photo from NTUC



So, what keeps Chan Chun Sing up at night? At the briefing, he shared this:

“What I worry about isn’t the number of jobs, but matching jobs to people.”

As our needs become more complex than simply meeting expected salaries, and the nature of work becomes more diverse, matching jobs to workers in need of them may not be as easy. The pace of change happening in all industries only complicates the challenge. Here in Singapore, Chan is learning about how to meet this need, and constantly thinking and rethinking how the Labour Movement can better understand the workers’ evolving needs, how to expand NTUC’s services, so that it becomes a powerful network to stay relevant to the landscape of work.

And though his Coca-Cola analogy may betray his age (come on, that is such an uncle thing to say), his new worldview may save him yet.

(Cover image via Labourbeat.org)


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Annie Teh

Author Annie Teh

Passionate about web-based content, I get excited about creating platforms for conversation through social media and the potential it holds for culture-crafting. I believe in working for a cause, and hope to one day contribute to the creation of a more cohesive and integrated culture in Singapore. Until then, I am writing my way through digital life, one foreboding online trend at a time.

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