Why are the trade unions in Singapore so weak?

“Why are the trade unions in Singapore so weak?” I asked NTUC Chief Lim Swee Say.


One of the benefits I get as a blogger, is that I get to meet important people all the time. On this occasion, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lim Swee Say, the Secretary General of the NTUC. Before meeting him, I Googled about trade unions in Singapore.

I found this Japanese website talking about “benefits of doing business in Singapore”. There are the usual low corporate tax, efficient system, great human resources… nothing surprising to me, but what I found at the very end was rather shocking.

It said: “Weak trade unions”. The business consultant who wrote the article was actually telling Japanese people to come do business in Singapore, because the trade unions here are so weak there’s nobody to keep them from abusing their workers. Is this true?

Therefore, I asked Mr. Lim Swee Say, the Secretary-General of NTUC, what he thought about this phenomenon.

“Haha…. I wonder what they meant by ‘weak’. Were there any reason in the article?” said Lim

“No, Mr. Lim. But I suppose they are saying so because you don’t do strikes in Singapore.”

“Ah-huh. So we must do strikes to be a strong trade union, is that what people think?”

“I guess many people in this world are thinking that strikes are the strongest weapon we workers have and must make use of it”, I said.

He gave me a cheeky smile, sat back in the sofa and shared with me the following points:


1. Strong trade unions do not need strikes.

“If you can get what you want without going on strike, would you go on strike? Singapore’s unemployment rate is very low and average salary is increasing.
Wage gain is faster than inflation today. I think we are doing well without going rough, don’t you think so?”

2. Singapore unions can still go on strikes.

“If you don’t want to go on strike but your union leaders decide to carry on,
in most countries, it means you are out of luck. You have to give up work and wait for the strike to be over. In Singapore, we think this shouldn’t happen.
So we only allow the strike to happen when this is the decision voted by over 51% of the workers. So…. if you want to go on strike, you can. Anytime. Go on.”

3. Our unions are not big. But they are efficient.

“We have 6,000 union leaders. It may not sound like a big number. But do you know we are the only country in this world with retirement age fixed for union leaders? You see, once you have power, most people don’t want to give it up. And that’s how systems start going wrong. We keep it small and smart. Always go for efficiency rather than just being BIG. If you think bigger is better, that’s not always true in trade unions.”

4. The membership is growing.

“We have more and more union members every year. You cannot judge our union strength by number of members, but because of this increase, we can be stronger in negotiation and get more results for our workers. We are active. We are growing.

So….. do you still think we are ‘weak’?”

I thought I should tell my fellow Japanese businessmen they would be very disappointed if they ever expect Singapore’s trade unions to be weak and quiet.

The unions come after you in the most efficient manner to make sure workers are treated well. But after the dialogue, Mr. Lim whispered to me with his cheeky smile again.

“Maybe we should keep ourselves looking ‘weak’……. so we can have more businesses come to Singapore, eh?”

You guys have the coolest labour chief, I must say.





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