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Singapore’s industrial peace built on Lee Kuan Yew’s tripartite vision, former NTUC chiefs say

The peaceful industrial relationship in Singapore that is envied by other countries did not happen on its own, former labour union chiefs and the current manpower minister saidThe state of affairs is a fruit of the strong relationship between the Government, worker unions and employers as envisioned by founding prime minister Lee Kuan YewThese observations were brought up during a tripartite event commemorating Mr Lee’s 100th birth anniversaryMoving forward, the union movement must adapt itself to a more educated and affluent worker demographic in order to stay relevant, the panellists said

By Taufiq Zalizan Published September 7, 2023 Updated September 7, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — When an unethical company was putting pressure on its workers to resign during an economic downturn in 1986 in order to avoid paying retrenchment benefits, Mr Lim Boon Heng, who was then the assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), called for a strike.

It turned out to be the last legal strike in Singapore.

He got blessings from then NTUC chief Ong Teng Cheong to hold the strike after the company refused to sit at the negotiation table.

What happened after the strike was that Mr Lim did not expect to be “called up for lunch” by an angry Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister at the time, to explain his actions. 

“(He) asked, ‘What message are you sending to employees around the world? In a downturn, we need to create more jobs, we need more investments. So, do you want to give other prospective investors the impression that Singapore unions are like all unions everywhere else — strike-happy?’” Mr Lim recounted.

Then he said in jest: “At the back of our minds, we were invited for lunch to get scolded. It was okay. If we were invited without lunch, it’s a different story.” 

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, speaking before the panel discussion, noted that the event on Wednesday was held just 10 days short of Mr Lee’s 100th birth anniversary on Sept 16.

“Today, we take industrial peace and harmony for granted. Our industrial relations model remains the envy of many countries around the world,” Dr Tan said.

“This does not happen by chance but is the result of years of conscious, painstaking and determined effort by the tripartite partners coming together to solve common problems. And driven by the vision of one man, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.”

‘PRO-BUSINESS, PRO-WORKER, PRO-FUTURE’

Relating an interaction he had with the former prime minister, Mr Lim Swee Say recalled how he was tasked to explain to officials in China who wanted to learn more about Singapore’s economic development “software”.

Mr Lee had briefed him that the “Singapore software” had two main aspects. The first was to achieve economic competitiveness, because “if the economy is not competitive, all of us will be poor together”.

However, Mr Lee also stressed that economic competitiveness was “not the end objective, it was only a means to an end”, which was social cohesion.

Mr Lim Swee Say added: “That social cohesion is important because if the society is not cohesive, there’ll be no long-term stability.

“And for (social cohesion) to happen, we have to take care of the life of Singaporeans.”

He also recalled Mr Lee’s interactions with members of a delegation from China.

The former prime minister had explained to members of the delegation that the balance that the Government has to strike in being pro-worker and pro-business is a dynamic one, depending on situations. In some situations, there was a need to be more pro-business, and in others, more pro-worker.

“If you get the dynamic wrong, you’ll be in trouble… you will not be able to strengthen the trust among the Government, employers and the workers,” he added.

Agreeing that the tripartite relations today were forged by deliberate design that stemmed from Mr Lee’s vision, Mr Lim Swee Say said: “Singapore is where we are today because we are able to balance (being) pro-business, pro-worker and pro-future in a very dynamic way, in a way that makes sense to all the parties involved that produce a win-win-win outcome.”

MAKING TRIPARTISM RELEVANT TO YOUTH

The event on Wednesday held at the National Gallery was attended by about 200 guests comprising union leaders and employers, as well civil servants and tertiary students.

Asked by the audience about the relevance of tripartism to young workers, Mr Lim Boon Heng said that the youth and young workers of today have different expectations from his generation.

The young today are more educated and start from a different “baseline” of more stability and relative economic affluence.

“The questions for young people would be, ‘What can the union do for me?’ So we have to address that point first,” he said.

He also said a survey had found that tertiary-educated workers showed less support for tripartism than those who had lower education.

“One of the reasons is that very few of them (higher-educated workers) join trade unions. They don’t know what the trade unions do.”

Mr Lim Boon Heng said that when he was secretary-general of the labour movement, he had seen the educational profile of the workforce changing and had wanted to expand the scope of union representation to a higher level, but was unable to do so.

“So we have therefore structurally denied workers with higher education the possibility of joining the union.

“And then I must also say that maybe from (NTUC’s) response, we didn’t do enough to look into what might interest the better-educated workers.”

He added that in the past, union leaders sat on statutory boards, which allowed for workers’ voices to be better heard.

“Today, it is not so easy to find somebody from the unions with the right capability to contribute on the board of a statutory board, because we have denied the unions, the pool of talents (joining) the unions.”

Ms Liew said that on its part, NTUC has continuously been innovating and reinventing itself to keep relevant and be able to serve the needs of workers.

Responding to a question on the evolving role of employers in the tripartite, Mr Stephen Lee, who is also a former president of the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), said that employers “have to keep pace with our two other partners that are progressing”.

“So SNEF must also find ways to reinvent itself and keep current.”

Asked by a member of the audience whether Singapore’s tripartite cooperation can become a bipartite one between just employers and workers, Mr Lee said no, adding that the Government plays a critical role.

Besides setting out the right policies and ensuring a good environment to operate business, he likened the tripartite arrangement in Singapore to a dragonboat.

“Employers are on one side, unions on one side. You must row at the same pace, otherwise the boat won’t go straight,” he said.

“What’s the Government’s role? The Government is the guy in the front who beats the drum, controls the pace. You need somebody to look at the public policy side and make sure that the implementation is straight.”

WHY LEE KUAN YEW CHOSE TANJONG PAGAR 

Earlier, Dr Tan in his opening speech talked about the relationship that Singapore’s founding prime minister had with unions and the working class, starting with how Mr Lee served as a legal adviser for many unions.

“In the landmark 1955 General Election, he chose to stand in Tanjong Pagar because it was a working-class area, which had the largest proportion of workers, wage-earners, small traders, and the lowest proportion of wealthy landlords,” Dr Tan said.

Mr Lee firmly believed in the importance of getting industrial relations right because it affects the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans, he added.

“It was Mr Lee’s unwavering belief in the power of collaboration among the unions, employers and Government that brought us industrial peace and set the bedrock and foundation for Singapore’s economic success.

“He played an instrumental role in shifting the employer-employee relations from a confrontational one to a cooperative approach.”

Ms Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State for Education and Manpower, who was at the event, said that Singapore has benefited greatly from tripartism.

“I joined the Ministry of Manpower in 2020, in the thick of the Covid pandemic. I saw first-hand how, because we had built the trust and because we have very strong tripartism, things moved very fast.”

She also said that looking at other economies, industrial peace is not a given and it is not a natural state of things.

“So Singapore is indeed very unique. And for us to continue to stay unique, the trust needs to be developed further. And it is every generation’s responsibility to build it up.”

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