I am intrigued by a statement made by presidential hopeful Mr Tan Kin Lian during the pre-nomination roundtable discussion in response to a question about his earlier active involvement in the PAP. He said, “… So I stopped being active (in PAP). I couldn’t resign because I was working for an NTUC organisation.” (quoted from Straits Times, 18 Aug 2011, page A8)
Before I am misunderstood, I am not supporting nor attacking any of the 4 presidential candidates. They each have their own motivations for standing for election and I wish them well. I am concern about this long and close link between NTUC and PAP that extends even to employees running their social enterprises.
The NTUC is a labour movement comprising a network of 60 trade unions, six associations, 12 social enterprises and 4 related organisations (source: www.ntuc.org.sg).
Since its formation in 1961, NTUC has grown from being purely a union representing workers into one that runs businesses that spans covers many aspects of our lives, literally from cradle to grave. Its 12 social enterprises (i.e. businesses) runs early childhood centres, club membership services, elder care services, supermarkets operations, food courts, training centres, insurance products, media and advertising services, loan services, pharmaceutical stores and property development.
I recall when the union first started business operations, it was to control the cost of staple food. I was often sent by my parents in the 1970s to queue to purchase of cheap rice in an outlet in Chai Chee, a 5-minute walk from my house. That has now grown into NTUC Fairprice which has over 200 outlets throughout Singapore.
I would say that it was a noble objective to keep the cost of living down. NTUC has been successful in business operations under a social enterprise status which grants it business advantages over competitors. It has since grown to cover many other business areas, some of which the social objectives are less obvious. Today, it has a group turnover of over US$3.5 billion (http://www.ntuclearninghub.co.in/frmContent.aspx?Page=Who%20are%20we), larger than many public listed companies in Singapore. I am not certain though if its original objective of keeping cost low is still valid. Despite heavily subsidised rents, its childcare services are comparable in fees to those at private centres paying commerical rents. I often find cheaper groceries in non-Fairprice supermarkets as well.
Now we hear from a former senior member of a key NTUC social enterprise that he had to be a PAP party member because he worked for an NTUC organisation. I am not privy to the internal functioning of NTUC as to whether this is a verbal instruction or an unwritten expectation for senior members to strongly comply with. The sprawling NTUC Group resembles a business conglomerate. I would expect that people working in and running its operations should be selected for their business and work abilities rather than for their political affiliation. When there are strong political expectations required of employees in a business organisation, I wonder if the organisation’s objectives are purely social in nature.