Everyone knows him as the statesman, but few have associated him with the Labour Movement. The first founding members of the People’s Action Party were trade unionists, and this explains the symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC.
This article first appeared on YoungNTUC, reproduced with permission.
He began his political life by representing trade unions. He was a young legal assistant at the firm of Laycock & Ong, when he was asked to look after the postmen who went on strike. For two weeks, the union went back and forth in the press against the Commissioner for Posts representing the Colonial government on the merits of their case. He drafted their statements.
Because of Mr. Lee, public sentiments swung towards the unions, and the Colonial government gave way to higher wages and better terms and conditions of service, removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants.
After this battle, Mr. Lee was next briefed by the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs for their demands, which went to arbitration. He then went on to become adviser to innumerable trade unions. When he fought his first election in 1955, he chose Tanjong Pagar because that was where the postmen were based.
The People’s Action Party was formed with the support of the trade unions and its first leaders and members were from the trade union movement. Even when he became Prime Minister, the interests of the workers and the unions were at heart – hence, our nation had a functional model of tripartism.
From the early years, trade union leaders are put on statutory boards so that they would understand and shape policies of the boards. The union’s role now was much more than just negotiation, they now had a share of country. The NTUC was as much involved in the country as any other statutory organisation was.
Whilst the rest of the world was still busy in archaic and primitive union work, ours was transformed into one that helped workers in much more ways than mere negotiation. This was the vision of Mr. Lee – to modernise and to progress. We had a Labour Movement that was adapted to Singapore, that was designed specifically and purposefully for Singapore.
We all know him as the strongman, the founder of modern Singapore, the leader of a nation. But as we go back to work today, I hope we remember the Mr. Lee as the original unionist of Singapore – the one who didn’t just fight, but established a Labour Movement that that will last longer than he would.
Young NTUC thanks Mr. Lee for his dedication and work in building Singapore.
(As a mark of respect, both organisations had their logos dimmed)