Tripartism: The secret sauce behind Singapore’s success


Today, the NTUC hosted the International Forum on Tripartism right here in Singapore. There are many reasons why they decided to come here and I shall explore them again at an opportune time. But before that, here’s a quick one on what “tripartism” means for all of us.

“‘The right to work’ and ‘the right to organise’ and all the other sacred cows of trade unions in the developed countries are the RESULT, and not the CAUSE of economic growth and progress.” said the late Devan Nair, then Secretary-General of NTUC.

Singapore’s brand of labour is without a doubt, successful. Businesses find it easy to operate, make a profit and thrive, employees get hired, salaries grow and workers are mobile.

The key to it all? A functioning model of tripartism and a lightly regulated labour environment.

There is industrial peace, salaries rise, there is industrial diversification, workers are highly mobile and unemployment is very low.

Singaporean workers are one of the highest paid in the world and companies enjoy the peace, stability and predictability of the political and business environment here.

It is the envy of governments around the world.

“Proponents exhort Singapore’s tripartite partnership as a really dynamic, effective tripartism that is very functional, very pragmatic, very operational”, quotes Mdm. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director for International Labour Standards at the 2nd International Trade Union Confederation for APEC Regional Conference in 2011.

The Prime Minister gave accolades to our model of tripartism during the May Day Rally in 2015. He revealed that other countries admire and want to emulate the success of the Singapore model. Many send teams of officials here to study the work of the tripartite partners and then try to replicate the work.


“…but it is not so easy. Their societies are different, their histories are different, and they don’t have the long tradition of the government delivering the goods for workers and building trust with the union leaders,” said Mr Lee.

There are other governments in the world that see unions as problems, rather than partners. They try to weaken the unions, with the unions fighting back. This conflict results in a gridlock, with all parties winding up on the losing end.

This sort of conflict is played out everyday throughout the world. This isn’t tripartism… these are self serving battles.

In spite of its widely recognised benefits, tripartism in other countries is becoming rare. Countries such as Australia, Ireland and the UK have turned from a centralised tripartite model to enterprise-based collective bargaining. This can be observed in the growing numbers of different trade unions each competing for members, and each contending with employers for employment benefits according to their own self serving needs.

When unions and employers take to conflict, then trust fades away. The notion of give-and-take disappears with it. It is no wonder around the world, tripartism is waning: union membership is declining across Europe, Ireland, Netherlands and South Korea.

It is well recognised among labour economists that countries with some form of tripartite partnership and engagement have better economic and social outcomes compared to those with enterprise-based bargaining. (Fraile, Lydia, ed., Blunting Neo-Liberalism: Tripartism and Economic Reforms in the Developing World (Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).)

In 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore as the most competitive Asian country that possessed the most cooperative labour-employer relations.

So you see, for all its criticisms, Singapore’s model of labour works.

Our model of tripartism in Singapore is essentially a social partnership. No nonsense, fully pragmatic, working together to grow jobs, income and career mobility.





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