Why must NTUC work with PAP? Are they married to each other?

By October 31, 2019Current

TL;DR – Macam husband and wife.

So, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) made a new song and released a shiny new music video along with it.

Did you watch it?


It’s curious how the video started with quotes from the late Lee Kuan Yew.

We made this country, from mud-flats.

Here, we make the model multi-racial society.

This is not a country that belongs to a single community. It belongs to all of us.

This was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.

To survive as a distinct and separate community, we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we fail. And you can neither be proud nor rugged if you do not have self-respect. Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers.

I dug around and found that these quotes were from a key speech back in 1965, the year we separated from Malaya and from an opening address at the 1969 Modernization Seminar, which was a pivotal moment for both the NTUC and People’s Action Party (PAP).

But the question remains.

Why did NTUC devote over one minute of its music video to Lee Kuan Yew?

The answer can be found in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s keynote speech at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Delegates’ Conference two weeks ago.

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the NTUC National Delegates’ Conference 2019


PM Lee opened his speech with the symbiotic relationship between the labour movement and PAP.

The PAP and the NTUC have been partners from the very beginning – even before they were born. The founders of the PAP began their political lives in the unions. In 1952, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as a young lawyer, represented the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in the postmen’s strike. He won a good settlement for the postmen, and went on to become legal advisor to countless other unions. That same year, Dr Goh Keng Swee set up a Council of Joint Action for all government unions and associations, to demand equal pay for local civil servants, the same as their expatriate colleagues. Two years later, Mr Lee launched the PAP to fight for independence from the British. Several unionists were among the founding members.

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Other than reminding the unionists of their shared beginning, PM Lee also spoke of how the symbiotic relationship and Singapore’s special brand of tripartism saw the nation through many crises through the years.

PM Lee’s speech had a rather substantial part on NTUC’s 1969 Modernization Seminar, which was a revolutionary move that changed the course of history for Singapore.

It was at this seminar that NTUC resolved to adopt a more cooperation stance and work with the Government and employers, instead of a confrontational one. The labour movement decided that NTUC had to play a big role in nation-building and become the mover of workers.

Or in PM Lee’s words,

Not narrowly defined by this year’s wage increase or job security – locked into this job – it cannot be adjusted, cannot be changed, cannot be separated. Instead of that, a more holistic goal: to help workers achieve a better standard of living – better homes, better schools, better hospitals, and a healthier environment and a brighter future for their children.

Then, if we can do that and create more jobs, and there is less unemployment. Over time, wages too would go up. They also reassured the unionists that they had an important role in transforming Singapore into a modern industrial economy, and building an independent and united nation.”

Expectedly, PM’s speech on the close relationship between NTUC and PAP attracted the usual online trolls and keyboard warriors.

I scoffed.

Why are these people so surprised and salty about it? Is it ignorance?

Do people not understand how it was this special approach that had seen Singapore’s industrialisation drive succeed beyond our wildest imagination in the early part of our history? And that this special approach had helped us journey from Third World to First?

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It is no secret that the PAP and the NTUC has a “special” relationship.

Why would workers’ unions work with a political party?

Why not?

Sure, NTUC could have adopted confrontational approaches such as strikes and riots to threaten employers and governments into giving in to their demands. But what good does it do for anyone to cripple our economy? How does it benefit anyone by causing injuries or even death?

Instead of confrontational tactics, NTUC had consciously decided on the non-confrontational approach to collaborate with the Government to improve the lives of workers through more peaceful and effective ways.

NTUC’s Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng was heartened to hear PM Lee share the Government’s commitment to work with the labour movement to help workers.


Think about this way: Assume you are a student and you need a new laptop for school.  You go to your mom (NTUC) for help so that she could speak to your dad (PAP) on your behalf, to convince him and get him to buy you the laptop that you need.

Obviously this is a better way to achieve what you want because throwing tantrums and getting into a fight will only result in a strained relationship with your parents – and there’s no guarantee you will get what you want.

Similarly, NTUC chooses to collaborate with the ruling party, and the PAP has proven itself so far to be pro-workers. The workers need a voice in policymaking and play an active part in nation-building. What better way than to make sure unionists are Members of Parliament (MPs) in Parliament? What better way than to actually have a labour chief who is a Minister in the Cabinet?

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This ensures that workers’ voices are heard, workers’ rights are lobbied for and workers’ interests are protected at the highest level of policy decision-making.

I don’t know about you, but PM Lee’s speech at the NTUC Delegates’ Conference is a big deal.

He is sending a strong signal that the Government of the day – the PAP – wants to be a strong strategic partner of the NTUC. He is effectively saying that the Government recognises that workers and unions are co-drivers of Singapore’s social and economic development.

The path ahead of us is challenging. PM Lee also addressed this point in his speech to the unionists,

We are once again sailing into uncharted waters. The world is filled with uncertainties. Our economy is entering a new phase. Technology is transforming many industries. Emerging businesses are disrupting established players. Our workers have to be ready for change.

In response to these rapid changes and uncertainties in the world, PM Lee gave his assurance that the bond between PAP and NTUC will be strengthened and sustained.

The PAP will always remain close to its roots in the labour movement.

No Singaporean, regardless of family background or life circumstances, will ever be shut out from opportunities, or left behind.

And to the workers who may be faced with challenges ahead, PM Lee promised that help will be at hand to help workers train for new roles, cope with the rapid changes in their industries and to remain employable. PM Lee gave his assurance to the workers,

It won’t be easy but we will walk with you every step of the way.

Not sure about you, but I’d much rather have a Government that has my – the worker’s – back.


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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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