An old letter from Halimah Yacob to the press


And in that letter the ex Deputy Secretary General of the NTUC tells mostly about how and why Singapore’s employment landscape is both peaceful and relatively successful at the same time.

The magic ingredient? Tripartism.

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Tripartism has no legal basis.Yet, despite this lack, tripartism has thrived and worked well in Singapore. It has delivered results for all the three parties – the Government, unions and employers – and is a distinct comparative advantage for Singapore. What is the recipe for this success?

To begin with, there is a consensus among the three parties that economic growth and job creation are common goals. And they can be achieved only if there is industrial peace and if the gains from growth are fairly distributed.

Employers want profits, unions want a better life for the workers and the Government wants a conducive environment for investments. These are not mutually exclusive goals but are interdependent.

Employers can remain profitable only if they take good care of their workers so they give their best. Singapore’s workforce has been ranked the best by Washington-based Business Environment Risk Intelligence (Beri) for many years.
Workers cannot expect to earn higher wages and better bonuses if there are no jobs or if their companies are not doing well, particularly in a globalised world where capital is very mobile.

And the Government cannot grow the economy if employers and unions are constantly at loggerheads with each other. The Government has an important role to play in maintaining industrial peace and in ensuring fairness through a mixture of persuasion and legislation.

Because of the high degree of confidence that exists between the Government and unions, unions are included in major decision-making processes. This is of crucial importance: In many countries, unions are excluded from policymaking and hence have to resort to confrontation in order to be heard. But here unions sit on major statutory boards and are involved in committees looking into key social and economic issues.

As a result, unions here have eschewed strikes and industrial action as a means of settling disputes. Instead, they have opted for negotiation, conciliation and arbitration, as provided for under the Industrial Relations Act.

Indeed, this is the second most important pillar in maintaining industrial stability in Singapore, after tripartism. Our dispute settlement mechanism is simple and inexpensive but effective. The best outcome would be if the parties, unions and companies, can settle disputes between themselves, as they know the issues well and would be in a good position to find solutions. If this fails, then conciliation by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) would kick in at the request of either party.

Every year, an average of about 300 disputes from the unionised sector are referred to the MOM for conciliation. If conciliation – a voluntary referral system – fails, then the parties have the option of referring the dispute to the Industrial Arbitration Court. The beauty of our arbitration system is that the court’s decisions are binding and final.

Confidence among employers and unions that the system of collective bargaining, conciliation and arbitration works, is a key factor in the parties’ willingness to make use of the system and avoid confrontation.

The third key ingredient of industrial peace is the equitable distribution of the gains from growth. Indeed, the ruling People’s Action Party has campaigned on the platform of ‘industrial peace with justice’ as the way forward from the strike-ridden days of the 1960s. Workers have enjoyed steady improvements in their wages and lives.

We need only to compare ourselves with our parents’ generation. Mr Veloo, aged 51, a member of the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers who works as a mechanical foreman at the Senoko Incineration Plant, captures this progress. While he is a daily rated worker with not much education, his three children are doing well. His elder son is studying in the Nanyang Technological University, his daughter is at an American university and his younger boy is in a junior college.

Life for each successive generation has become better through education and skills upgrading. Mr Veloo himself is not standing still. He has undergone many skills upgrading programmes. He was a welder; he is now a foreman.

The big question now is whether this model is sustainable. There is no reason for it to fail, provided all sides understand how it works. Also, workers must see the benefits of cooperating with, rather than confronting, employers and the Government.

A visiting professor from a developed country once asked me a pertinent question: Why, if indeed tripartism is a comparative advantage for Singapore and it is clearly a win-win strategy, are there still employers who resist unionisation? A good question to which I have no satisfactory answer – except that there are employers here whose experience of unions elsewhere has not been positive and therefore they continue to be wary of unions.

Also, we cannot ignore the fact that some employers continue to be unilateralist in their management of workers. To them, nothing must come between them and workers, and pluralism, what the unions stand for, is not appealing.

We have a healthy tripartite relationship, which is the envy of many countries and is acknowledged by the International Labour Organisation as a useful model, particularly in the Asian context. We have much to celebrate in this month of May which is typically marked around the world by protests, demonstrations and sombre reflections on how much workers have lost in a period of rapid, unbalanced globalisation.

Singapore is among the few industrialised countries where union membership has not declined.




About the author

Tay Leong Tan

Tay Leong Tan is a collective of 3 writers. Tay, Leong and Tan. (Who were you expecting?!) We are enthusiastic about labour issues, economics and current affairs in particular.

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