In a way, the NTUC setup the PAP. Maybe not in the same form that you see today, but that was how it began.
Mr. Lee began his political life by representing trade unions. That is the starting point. As a young legal assistant at the form of Laycock & Ong, he was asked to look after postmen who went on strike. He first won a public relations battle that was played out in the local media and he won it skillfully for them.
Mr. Lee then went on to fight an arbitration for the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs.
After that, he went on to becoming adviser to innumerable trade unions.
Mr. Lee was a trade unionist. So were many of the founding members of the PAP. At the foundation of the party on the 21st November 1954, some 1500 people thronged Victoria Memorial Hall to support them. Numbered strongly amongst them were trade union members.
The PAP rejects corruption absolutely. The white uniform they put on is a constant reminder of this. With personal gain and unjust enrichment out of the way, the party had only one task: make Singapore a better place to live in. This could only be done if the economics of the country was strong and strong economics could only be achieved if we had an empowered workforce.
From day one, the PAP was obsessed with jobs and workers. And they were serial pragmatists.
“We knew if we embarked on any of these romantic ideas (referring to language, race and religious chauvinism), to revive a mythical past of greatness and culture, we’d be damned. So there’s no return to nativism. We have left our moorings. We’re all stranded here to make a better or worse living than in our own original countries”, Mr. Lee said in an International Herald Tribune interview.
The only way the country was to survive, was to have strong economic activity. The Economic Development Board was setup in 1961 to pursue investors from as far as New York. PAP politicians were tasked to attend as many of these corporate ceremonies as possible, to give these people confidence to setup shop here. Jurong Industrial Estate was established in 1962 against severe public criticism (but turned out to be the right move) and the Development Bank of Singapore in 1968.
In the early years, trade unionists were influenced by communist leaders to riot and strike for political purpose. The labour movement was utterly abused. The country lost many man-hours to zero sum industrial action. No one was paid better and worse, entire industries collapsed resulting in bigger job losses.
This was a period of time where the businessman, the capitalist, the rich man were all seen as enemies of the working people. This was a period where the trade union movement was antagonistic and highly militant. If Singapore was to progress, romantic ideals of bourgeois vs proletariat cannot be pursued.
Singapore had to create a trade union movement that has harmony designed into the system, where employees, employers and even the government could collectively be held to account should something mess up. From day one, we had “tripartite” integrated into the system.
In the 60s, this was easy to do – the civil service was young, small and took leadership directly from the PAP. Decision making was flexible and very nimble. the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act of 1968 was passed, limiting the worker’s right to strike. With this limitation, the unions were given something even more precious – a share in the running of the country. The entire labour movement, the trade unions and workers all had a direct say into policy and law making matters.
The PAP provided leadership, direction and vision for a brand new Labour Movement. They had the worker’s welfare at heart and it was this concern for the worker that drove the leaders to build a Singapore a home for all and not just a few.
And that is why to this day, on the 1st of May, the PAP and the NTUC get together to reinforce this symbiotic relationship with the rallying cry of “Majulah Singapore, Majulah NTUC, Majulah PAP”.
Since that day in 1952 when Mr. Lee lifted the sword in battle for the postal workers, that sword has not been put down.