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a year ago / draft / ntuc

Some thoughts on the symbiotic relationship between PAP and NTUC.

I'm not going to lie - for the most part of my life I've always thought of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) as a government / political organisation. I never really knew what it does except that it's somewhat linked to the government and that my neighbourhood supermarket and insurance plans bear the same initials :smirk:

I honestly think most Singaporeans feel the same... that the NTUC is a quasi-government organisation.


I attended the May Day rally two Fridays back - my first time! - and I learned quite a few things that morning. That the NTUC has a song (like for real!), why we celebrate May Day and that the tripartite relationship between the unions, employers and the Government is uniquely Singapore.

The PAP element was also pretty visible during the rally - you can see a transcript of PM Lee's script here - and we ended the session with cheers of "Majulah NTUC!" and "Majulah PAP!".


Hmm... I've always known that Mr Lee Kuan Yew's political career started with the workers - he had represented postal workers pro bono in their strike negotiations with the colonial government. And when the PAP came into power, this started the symbiotic relationship between the government and the unions.

To put things more simply - the NTUC is not a part of the PAP and instead works closely WITH the government.

Some say that this was a tactical move to severely reduce the possibility of strikes happening, thereby holding the social fabric together in a (relatively) chaotic period.

(I don't think this is entirely true though because we had the nurses' striking at the Singapore General Hospital back in 1963 and FYI, it is NOT illegal to conduct strikes here in Singapore.)

This symbiotic relationship was born out of necessity; based on a shared vision and common goals: NTUC wants better life for workers and the PAP Government wants better life for all Singaporeans.

Does this in turn mean that our trade union are weak? A fellow blogger brought this up at a recent tea session I attended with Mr Lim Swee Say and he said something that makes quite a bit of sense - Strong trade unions do not need strikes.

"If you can get what you want without going on strike, would you go on strike? Singapore’s unemployment rate is very low and average salary is increasing. Wage gain is faster than inflation today. I think we are doing well without going rough, don’t you think so?"

(You can read more here.)

To be honest, I think the tripartite relationship between the unions, employers and the Government is one of the greatest contributors to Singapore's progress as a thriving business centre. We have observed time and again the risk of economic standstill and the numerous disruptive repercussions, for example, my top travel advice to friends is - Don't book Air France. Every other day their workers go on strike :joy:

But jokes aside, this then begets the question...

What then is the impact of this symbiotic relationship on our workers' lives?

Today, we see the numerous facilities NTUC has provided for the workers. Besides the NTUC FairPrice we are all familiar with, NTUC has also developed its recreational capabilities like NTUC Club, NTUC Pasir Ris Resort, Sentosa chalets and the Orchid Country Club among others. Additionally, collectively, NTUC can bargain with companies such as recreation centres, the zoo or Sentosa to get lower prices for its members.

We have also seen and heard many stories (especially during the mourning period) how Mr Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister had actively championed this symbiotic relationship that countless workers have benefitted from better treatment, wages and conditions at the workplace.


1960 May Day Rally at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

“May Day 1960 will always be a notable occasion in the history of the trade union movement of Singapore, for this is the first time that May Day is celebrated in Singapore when there is a government which is openly on the workers’ side.” - Lee Kuan Yew


While I won't deny that tripartism has worked really well in Singapore - so well that PM Lee mentioned that other countries have tried to emulate but are not able to replicate this model to much success - I feel that the next lap for the NTUC lies in raising productivity standards across the country.


Productivity Month in 1982 at Chinatown

This productivity push is not a new concept, but I feel it could be better mandated. We could perhaps look at coming up with monthly bonus schemes where a percentage of the bonus would come from workers being proactive and taking initiative, providing good service and increased productivity and work on implementing them across all sectors (especially service sectors). I believe this will then keep bottom line-driven companies in check and in turn, not just benefit employees but perhaps create a different kind of society in Singapore.

You know, a much more gracious one where service is better (I'm not going to mince my words, our service standards could seriously do with a lot more improvement), work standards higher, bosses treating their staff with more respect and people then might just be less 'under happy' at work.

I don't know if this sounds far-fetched but I don't think it is impossible either. #faithinsingapore :muscle:

And of course, with all that talk about the next GE, there's also the question of what happens to the NTUC and this symbiotic relationship should the PAP one day no longer be the ruling party?

Well, your guess is as good as mine.