PAP and NTUC’s open symbiotic relationship – What’s so surprising, and why so salty?

By November 10, 2020Current
Lee Kuan Yew and Devan Nair

TL;DR – Championing for workers has always been in the PAP’s DNA leh.

So at the People’s Action Party’s 36th Ordinary Party Conference Speech last week, Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the PAP and the National Trades Union Congress’s symbiotic relationship. Apparently, some were triggered by the “blatant endorsement” of the NTUC by the PAP when Mr Lee ended his speech with “Majulah NTUC! Majulah PAP! Majulah Singapura!”.

Huh, what’s so surprising? Championing for workers has always been in the PAP’s DNA and this took root before many of us were born perhaps.

The birth of PAP and NTUC’s symbiotic relationship

A bit of history.

This tradition of rallying together – the NTUC and PAP, goes all the way back to the 1950s when Mr Lee Kuan Yew represented the postal workers as their legal advisor in fighting for better wages. So… bear this in mind, Mr Lee was involved in trade unionism even before joining politics!

Nugget of information – When Mr Lee fought his first election in 1955, he chose Tanjong Pagar – the location where the postmen were based.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew with Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union

1952: Mr Lee with the executive committee members of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union. Via


Now, no discourse on the history of Singapore is ever complete without the mention of trade unions and the NTUC! Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team have forged close ties with Singapore’s trade unions and those ties have lasted till today.

PAP’s grassroots support was built up by informally working with the unions since the very beginning. You see where we are going?

While it may make for good drama, confrontational approaches such as strikes really don’t do good for anyone! At that time, the PAP knew that Singapore had to be economically strong in order to survive and the NTUC? It knew workers would only benefit from a strong economy. Right from Day One, there was mutual understanding and synergy between the two. A shared vision and common goals.

The symbiotic relationship was born.

A watch was presented to the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew by the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Clerical Workers in appreciation for assisting Mr Lee in his fight for the workers.


The symbiotic relationship and Singapore’s special brand of tripartism have led us through many crises.

Another nugget of information: The Government does not and cannot appoint NTUC leaders OK? The chosen leader needs to be elected to the NTUC central committee by secret ballot. This ensures he or she will be acceptable to the unions. All Labour MPs have to go through the rigorous voting process. No shortcuts, no side doors, geddit?

Since 1961, NTUC has continued to work closely with the PAP Government to bring Singapore forward. Now, NTUC’s relationship with the PAP is contingent on the PAP’s will to champion for workers’ rights. That is, the PAP must always be on the side of working people for this relationship to continue.

I’m not sure about you, but I have no doubt that it is this symbiotic relationship between the PAP and NTUC, and Singapore’s special brand of tripartism is one of the greatest contributors to Singapore’s progress. And guess what? It must continue to take us through the unprecedented pandemic – a particularly trying time for workers.

So when some criticise the NTUC for its affiliations with the PAP because “no other union in the world does this”, erm not true. Trade unions all over the world work very closely with politicians, because like it or not, the reality is: you’re unlikely to get things moving without political backing.

This symbiotic relationship – what has it got to do with ME?

Today, we see the numerous facilities NTUC has provided for Singaporeans. NTUC Club, for example, was established in 1986 to provide affordable lifestyle options for union members and the public. The NTUC FairPrice we are all familiar with, NTUC Income, NTUC First Campus, NTUC Foodfare and MoneyOwl… Now, for these Social Enterprises, their main priority isn’t profit OK?

Rather, NTUC is macham the unsung hero, keeping things steady behind the scenes, supporting ordinary Singaporeans both in peacetime, and in crisis time. (Eh, remember the time when Singaporeans went all out to snatch up toilet paper, rice, etc. and just plain refuse to believe FairPrice’s CEO when he told Singaporeans there was no need to create your own stockpiles?)

Why is NTUC FairPrice limiting the number of essential items despite having sufficient stocks?

As we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and move into the New Normal, I’d say the bond between the PAP and NTUC needs to be stronger than ever. The health crisis might be sortaaaa over for Singapore – for now – but there is a lot more work to be done, jobs to be created. Honestly, with PM Lee reaffirming the relationship with NTUC, it can only mean good things for workers like you and me.

So please, there is really no need to be salty about the relationship between PAP and NTUC OK? Well, the day we need to be worried is the day the ruling party, whoever that might be, is no longer BFF with the representative of workers.

Scary thought huh.

(Cover image of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and NTUC Secretary-General CV Devan Nair Via)


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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.

More posts by Gabrielle Teo

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