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Too early to tell: Chan Chun Sing, on his leadership style

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“It is too early to tell,” Chan Chun Sing said, when asked by the media about his leadership style as the new secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Mr Chan, who previously held the Social Development and Family (MSF) portfolio, took over the helm at the NTUC yesterday from Mr Lim Swee Say.

Mr Lim has been assigned to take charge of the Manpower Ministry.

“A good leader is not one with a particular style,” Mr Chan explained,” but someone who can bring out the best from his team by adapting his leadership style.”

Mr Chan, 45, who was formerly the Chief of Army before entering politics in the 2011 general elections under the People’s Action Party (PAP) banner, was echoing what he had said earlier – that leaders should adapt to organisations to bring out the best in their staff.

In an interview with the media in 2012, the MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC reportedly said, “Our job as leaders is not to provide the answers but to bring out the answers from everybody, that is perhaps already in their minds. That is how I see my role.”

However, Mr Chan said he is not one who will seek out leadership positions, apparently. It was the same at the NTUC, he explained. He said he did not ask to join the labour movement but he was instead invited by the movement’s central committee to do so.

“I’m not the kind who would say I want to go here, I want to go there,” he said.

Instead, he said that he is “the type of person that if someone offers me an opportunity, and if I think I can make a contribution and if the person is willing to give me a chance, I will go all out and do my best.”

Mr Chan is a highflyer from his earliest days as a President Scholar at age 18, subsequently graduating from Cambridge with an Economics degree, and completing the Sloan Fellows Programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He was also the Chief of Army at 40, and one of the youngest Cabinet ministers at 42.

Mr Chan was thus seen as a frontrunner to be Singapore’s fourth prime minister.

But some have observed that given the non-ministry role at the NTUC, Mr Chan may not  acquire the necessary experience to be prime minister. Singapore’s two former PMs had been assigned various heavier portfolios in various ministries to test their capabilities before they took on the top job.

Running the union is quite different from being a minister, some say.

Mr Chan’s 4 years at the MSF is seen as a stint in a relatively small ministry, although he had also been Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, Senior Minister of State for Defence, and later Second Minister for Defence.

Whatever it is, Mr Chan has much to do at the NTUC, especially given the current economic restructuring by the government.

The job of union leaders is thus critical.

“Union leaders take on challenging roles in ensuring our workers have a better job and better pay,” Mr Chan said about three weeks ago. “Whilst keeping close to the ground they also need that helicopter view when negotiating with the management.

“More than solving problems and mediating during conflicts, our union leaders also pre-empt and prevent issues through better communications between the workers and management.”

Will Mr Chan’s leadership style propel him to the top job as prime minister and lead the fourth generation of PAP political leaders in government?

With only one day into his NTUC job, it is perhaps indeed too early to tell.