Imagine this is the 22nd of November 1954.
You’re the PAP and you have just been voted into power. The island badly organised, a mishmash of slums, there is over-population, unemployment, housing shortage and racial tensions.
The national coffers had only several million dollars, few companies have setup shop here, preferring the regions neighbouring us.
What would you do?
In one word, it would be this: jobs.
Jobs would keep the people active, give them something to be proud of and give meaning to their lives. Jobs provide the income necessary, jobs beget more jobs, sprouting new industries wherever goods and services are needed.
Jobs are the single power that had lifted the country out of poverty, that gave everybody a roof over their heads and rice to fill their bowls.
From thence, this country was obsessed with jobs because it was the tool that would help the government to help the people
It was no easy job, to create jobs. For start, remember that this is 1955. Singapore is plagued with trade union disputes, strikes and protest. In order for companies to setup shop here, there was to be stability and industrial peace – and this was the domain of the trade unions.
For a flavour of the disruptions, we draw your attention to the 8th of October 1963.
The Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU, an opponent of the NTUC then) organised a strike number more than 100,000 workers across seven trade unions. They are:
- The Singapore Business Houses Employees Union,
- The Singapore Bus Workers Union
- The Singapore General Employees Union
- The National Seamen’s Union
- The National Union of Building Construction Workers
- The Brick-Making Workers Union and
- The Machine and Engineering Employees Union
They orgniased to strike, not for workers welfare, or wages, or even working conditions, but rather for political means. They came together in show of solidarity for SATU.
This sort of militant trade unionism ran counter to Singapore’s mission to grow jobs through a stable environment. SATU was eventually disbanded and their trade unions reorganised.
Between 1967 to 1968, there was an effort to drive the economy through foreign investment. To do this, the government had a need to revamp the industrial relations and employment legislations.
Trade unions were initially concerned. The legislative changes meant that their scope for negotiations were to be reduced. However, they gave full support and endorsement after the government promised that employers would not be allowed to take advantage of workers and to give the entire labour movement a new direction: that is to have ownership of the building of this new nation.
All this came to fruition in November 1969, through a four-day seminar organised by the NTUC.
It was called “Modernisation of the Labour Movement” or “Modernisation Seminar”. The purpose of the seminar was to give the labour movement a reboot and to drive home the fact that tripartism was to be at the centre of Singapore’s industrial relations.
From the above, we can see that the NTUC played a very special role to the establishment of an advanced labour movement. Even before the formation of the NTUC, close links existed between the PAP and some of the trade unions. Lee Kuan Yew and other leaders of PAP served as advisors to these future affiliates of NTUC in one capacity or another. The founding members of PAP are numbered trade unionists among them.
The symbiotic relationship between the PAP and NTUC is not unique to Singapore. Political and trade union movements in many other countries see this form of intertwining. The goals are similar: to organise workers to demand for fairer pay and working conditions.
Both organisations have one common vision: to create orderly industrial relations in Singapore, that will lead to…yes, that’s right. Jobs.
Over time, both organisations would form the fundamentals of what would be a functioning tripartite relationship that would improve the corporate ecosystem in such a way that would make labour welfare ever so effective. Trade unions can then move their work to loftier heights and start improving the intrinsic skills a worker needs to climb the social ladder.
So when you hear that the PAP is sleeping with the NTUC, you must take into consideration several contexts: historical, economical and practical.