NTUC and PAP leaders at NTUC's Ordinary Delegates' Conference 2017 (Facebook/Unusual Labour Movement)
Observe a PAP member and you will notice they address one other as “Comrade”.
Does it sound curious to you?
The NTUC used to do that also, but (if my sources are correct), this was changed by Lim Swee Say during the turn of the century. Since then, they have saluted each other with “Brother” and “Sister”. It is same-same-but-different to the “comrade” salutation.
The term “comrade” was used in politics, especially as a form of address between socialists and workers. Later on it became associated with Communism.
Now, doesn’t matter if you’re socialist, unionist or communist, the history of these groups have a common fight – a fight between the haves and the have-nots. Between the working class and their bosses. Or, in the traditional speak: between the proletariat and the bourgeoise.
However the Singaporean species of socialism and trade unionism, has done away with this sort of division. It cannot be a fight of poor against rich, this is the sort of fight that traps a nation in cycle of instability. The leadership had gone out of the way to integrate, even blur the lines between poor and rich.
The Straits Times published an article last week that seemed to suggest that union leadership in the past was “from the ground up”. If this was true, then the NTUC would be guilty of class division – the very thing that the leadership want to eradicate.
In fact, as early as the 1950s, many key leaders in both the communist and non-communist unions came from outside the working class ranks.
Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan weren’t working class heroes. They were spotted even when they were in school and groomed for leadership in the Communist united front.
In the 1950s, even Lee Kuan Yew recruited activists from the university socialist club for union leadership – among them Sandra Woodhull and Dominic Puthucheary. These men were not the traditional “working class” either, and both wound up later in the Barisan Sosialis.
What about those that did “rise from the ranks”?
Many came from the teaching profession – including Devan Nair. Even those who setup the NTUC Admin and Research Unit (where the full time staff come from) were men seconded from the civil service such as SR Nathan, Hsu Tse Kwang and academic Tom Elliott.
We take it for granted today that organisations such as the PAP and NTUC are represented and led by a mix of people from diverse backgrounds, but we cannot forget that this was intended and meticulously designed to be so.
By suggesting that the Labour Movement was once led by heroes of the working class is a myth. In both the communist and non-communist unions, much of the leadership came from outside the working class, including professionals.
In Singapore, talented professionals are willing to fight for and with the working class. It is not a sacred class war, one against the other. If it was so, Singapore would not be where we are today.