Tripartism: Three’s company

A recent article quoting the Prime Minister’s response to last year’s illegal Chinese bus driver strike raised discussions on the topic of tripartism in Singapore, which he sees as an essential pillar of Singapore politics and society.

As PM Lee put it: “Doesn’t matter how things happen overseas, you may have strikes, you may have riots, you may have demonstrations when you have unhappiness. In Singapore, if there’s a problem, let us find out early. Let’s talk about it, let’s nip it in the bud, resolve it harmoniously and if necessary through arbitration. Let’s do it in a mature, adult way, which is constructive and helps us to move forward together.”

But what exactly do we know about “tripartism”, other that it is the “mature, adult way”? What does it entail?

For starters, the “tri” in the name clearly denotes “three parts” or “three parties”. More specifically, the three key sectors of economy and society: business (companies), labour (workers), and state (government).

In Singapore, those three parties are represented by SNEF, NTUC, and MOM. As far back as 1972, when the National Wages Council (NWC) was established to formulate wage guidelines, measures have been taken to prevent disputes and achieve orderly agreements in all sectors of the economy.

Trust and understanding are vital elements in the success of this system, and communication has played a major role in the execution of relevant policies. During the financial crisis and recent economic upheavals, it was this foundation that facilitated labour market adjustments in Singapore and allowed us to be less affected than neighbouring countries.

In 2008, despite global trends we still managed to see overall employment grow. Our ability to retain human capital provided the tenacity to then rebound with a 14.5% GDP growth in 2010. Much can be said for the industrial cohesion created by our strong structural and cultural foundation of tripartism.

The system basically strives to bring benefits to all parties, balancing their distinct agendas throughout different economic climates. Unlike other countries, where everyone is fighting for their own individual interests (teachers vs. Ministry, doctors vs. surgeons, policemen vs. prison guards, etc.), in Singapore the government effectively formulates and implements employment and industrial policies for social and economic progress.

In concrete terms, this means workers are able to enjoy a fair share of economic gains during good times while the burden of economic slump is shared among all three parties to retain employer competitiveness and jobs.

For instance, initiatives were rolled out to cope with the downturn and to mitigate negative effects left by the 2008 economic crisis. Things like cash grants, training scheme subsidies, and guidelines on managing excess manpower helped fend off retrenchment and unemployment. Issues like raising the re-employment age also come up for tripartite discussion.

That’s why the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization stressed that “dynamic social dialogue and the functional practice of tripartism within and across borders are greatly relevant to achieving employment solutions and enhancing social cohesion”.

Tripartism has been described as a key competitive advantage for Singapore. It aims to sustain employer-employee harmony and boost economic competitiveness, contributing to the overall socio-economic progress of the nation.

Having lived in a country where trains, buses and campuses regularly stop functioning because of strikes, I can’t say I don’t appreciate the fluid efficiency here—kudos if it’s driven by big words like tripartism. I think we underrate the industrial peace we enjoy simply because we take it for granted.

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