It all started with a union…

The 23rd of March will mark the anniversary of Mr. Lee’s passing. FiveStarsAndAMoon will publish a short series about his contribution to the nation.

All of Mr. Lee’s career can be traced back to the defining moment at Laycock & Ong when he was enlisted to fight for the postal worker’s union. His commitment to Singapore’s workers was one that started his political career. The reason for continued service in Tanjong Pagar was also a trade union decision: it was the place where the ports were.

“When I fought my first election in 1955, I chose Tanjong Pagar because that was where the post men were based and also the dock workers”.

Unions rallied support for him through Singapore’s merger and subsequent separation from Malaysia. When the PAP was formed in 1954, its first leaders and members hailed from the trade union movement, kickstarting an unbroken connection with those at the grassroots level.

What followed was a partnership of equal footing between trade unions, employers and the government – when even up till today, this relationship was one of adversary. Although there is a harmonious tripartite relationship today, Lee doesn’t allow the workers let up: “…in the end, it must be the vigilance, diligence and hardworking of the trade union leaders themselves which should sustain the movement…”

Interestingly, Mr Lee also once pointed out,”The close co-operation between the political and the union leadership made modern Singapore.” That was the foundation of tripartite, a social partnership and it lasts till today.

In 1968, a newly formed nation was eventually rendered more vulnerable by a withdrawal of British troops from Singapore. This wasn’t just a military matter. It was a crisis that meant joblessness for hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans, unemployment and loss of income. The new government had no choice but to work with NTUC and employers, changing employment laws and practices to lay the foundations of a productive, cooperative economy.

These joint efforts paid off – in spectacular fashion. By the 1970s, more than 40,000 new jobs had been created. Singapore’s economy then started accelerating and Mr. Lee supported the trade unions by helping them upgrade the skills of workers. This small fishing village was slowly becoming more and more and industirial powerhouse, on par with the world’s fastest and fittest.

Singapore became known as the economic miracle of the East.

It was this close co-operation in working with the trade unions and the unionists that the common worker can have a share in the country. In his lifelong labour with trade unions and the NTUC, Mr. Lee showed those who criticised him how he was willing to roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty.



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