Minister Lim Swee Say (LSS) has come out to defend the position of my former employer, NTUC Income, in the wake of revelations as to why my former boss and presidential hopeful, Tan Kin Lian (TKL), left NTUC Income. He has shared he wanted NTUC Income to be run more professionally, not that it implies that TKL ran it unprofessionally.
LSS has a very different style from that of his predecessors, Lim Boon Heng and Ong Teng Cheong. In his tenure, he has been shameless in his pursuit of preparing NTUC and its cooperatives for a future, where it sheds it straight-jacketed, stingy image. That image may have appealed to a generation of past; it will not to a generation that is more questioning and image conscious.
To achieve this vision, LSS has had to get rid of NTUC's old guard, albeit in a respectful and sensitive manner. Unfortunately, as is the case with such changes, no matter how well one manages it, feathers get ruffled. What LSS did with NTUC Income is a microcosm of his unwavering pursuit to reposition NTUC.
I had decided the year before TKL's retirement that 2007 would be my last year as a full-time employee in NTUC Income. I was taking a sabbatical to complete my qualification process as an advocate and solicitor of Singapore. I informed NTUC Income of this.
I was in my last months of full-time service in NTUC Income when TKL was succeeded by Tan Suee Chieh (TSC). I worked part-time for NTUC Income until December that year. It was my intention to return to NTUC Income after my sabbatical ended two years later. However, the policies of the law firm I joined in order to complete the applicable regulatory obligations required me to resign from NTUC Income. Nevertheless, during that limited period, I was in a position to experience first-hand the transition of leadership.
In all fairness, TSC did not have an easy time. He had to dismember the entrenched association of NTUC Income to TKL. This required turning upside down a lot of the practices of NTUC Income. He had to divest a lot of non-core assets. He also had to pull the plug on several unprofitable product lines, among other things. He went on a massive spending spree to improve the office environment, including his own office, and to bring in top-tier consultants to revamp the image of NTUC Income.
It also meant, in carrying out this task, he would have to bring in new people he could trust. To attract talent, salaries were increased across the board with employees taking home bigger bonuses. Several employees were re-designated or shipped out.
However, one thing that annoyed me at a fundamental level was when I found out much later that head-hunters had been appointed to find a replacement for or to bypass NTUC Income's independent and competent general counsel. TKL tried to do something similar before in devolving the responsibilities of the general counsel; TSC was just following TKL's example. To the credit of the unity of the Singapore bar, no lawyer worth his or her salt accepted the job. Any general counsel, who asks tough questions and is a true guardian of an organisation's interests, should be prepared for such surprises from time to time.
TSC continues to run NTUC Income like a very tight ship, as did TKL. Given the interests and importance of NTUC Income to the Singapore landscape - for example, in holding key stakes in Singapore assets like the Singapore Press Holdings - there can be no other way.
I initially had reservations about LSS's plans for NTUC Income.
While many things have changed, including the CEO becoming perceivedly less accessible, I still sense NTUC Income remains committed to its social charter of delivering better value to its policyholders. With innovations like its annual kite festival and city running event, it also remains true to its cooperative roots of giving back to society.
If the saffron revolution has defined the freedom fighters of Burma and Tibet, the orange revolution has been the hallmark of the leadership of Tan Suee Chieh. He must be credited for beating the odds and changing the course of NTUC Income to appeal to a more active, image-driven Singapore citizenry, as much as his predecessor may disagree with the way things have panned out.
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