TL;DR – Yes, the PAP and NTUC enjoy a strong symbiotic relationship and listen to this, it can only mean good things for Singaporean workers.
If you don’t know by now, the Labour Movement has always been the PAP’s key partner. The PAP-NTUC symbiotic relationship dates back to the 1960s. Yes, the ties go all the way back – before either “PAP” or “NTUC” even existed!
You see, Mr Lee Kuan Yew began his political career as a lawyer representing the postal workers’ union. He helped them gain better wages and terms of service from the colonial government then! By the time the PAP was formed in 1954, Mr Lee was legal adviser to more than 100 unions and associations. Many other founding members of the PAP were unionists as well.
Naysayers had expressed concerns over this symbiotic relationship. But as PM Lee said in his 2021 May Day Message.
“Tripartism and cooperation have been far more effective in securing workers’ welfare and livelihoods than militancy and conflict.”
Mr Lee had the interests of workers at heart even in the early days. So did many of the founding members of the PAP. The party had only one clear goal in mind from Day One: make Singapore a better place to live in. This could only be done if the economics of the country was strong. How to get there though? With the support of an empowered workforce.
From the get go, the PAP was preoccupied with jobs and workers. After all, a job is the best welfare. The only way the country was to survive, was to have strong economic activity. Pursuing investors was one of Singapore’s key strategy from the early days. And it continues today!
Then, trade unionists were influenced by communist leaders to riot and strike for political purpose. This was a period when the trade union movement was hostile. Now, pause for a moment here, do we want that today? Nope. One can only imagine the man-hours that will be lost to industrial action and subsequent job losses.
In Singapore, our unique formula of the tripartite model has seen us through some tough times…
As a young nation, the first crisis Singapore faced was the withdrawal of British forces.
Followed by the 1973 oil crisis, our first major recession in 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Global Financial Crisis and now, the Covid-19 pandemic. Hand to heart, has this model failed us?
Our tripartite model has seen us through each of these crises with minimal damage.
- Workers made sacrifices, and accepted pay cuts. The Unions fought for better training opportunities to help workers pivot, bounce back or fair retrenchment packages in the evitable event of lay-offs.
- Employers pulled their weight, and with wage and training support from the government, tried to save as many jobs as possible.
- Government supported businesses and workers through the slew of support measure – remember the 4 Budgets that DPM Heng rolled out in 2020?
Singapore had to create a trade union movement that was harmonious, where employees, employers and even the government could work together to create win-win-win outcomes. And they did.
In the early days, the PAP provided leadership, direction and vision for the Labour Movement. The party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) — who are often invited to serve as advisors to various unions — “go beyond advising, to helping out with the union ground, engaging workers directly”. This gave the PAP MPs strong ground understanding of worker issues – why workers are worried, angry, and what their concerns are. They can then speak up in Parliament on behalf of workers and bring better outcomes.
To this day, the PAP and the NTUC still emphasise this symbiotic relationship. No, it’s not a hush-hush relationship. The PAP and NTUC enjoy a strong symbiotic relationship and listen to this, it can only mean good things for Singaporean workers. This Labour Movement is not about only serving some workers. They are determined to make sure that they are a representative, relevant and strong force to represent all workers in Singapore. And they have proven themselves in their ability to keep up with the needs of working people, especially when technological disruptions will result in the creation of new jobs and need for new skills.
A collective strength and voice through attracting more members, that’s how the unions can safeguard the welfare and interests of workers in Singapore in the days to come.