Lee Kuan Yew began his political career representing trade unions while as a young lawyer with the firm Laycock & Ong. Mr Lee started winning over the rank and file who saw someone who was able to fight for their rights, whether it was for higher wages or a change in the design of the postal workers’ uniforms that would make them look less like ‘circus attendants’. I’ve mentioned previously how my father met a thuggish ‘elder Mr Lee’ in that incarnation as a union lawyer here.
While the marriage between political parties and trade unions was not unique to Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew set in motion an evolution in labour relations that has not been emulated in any other jurisdiction. With workers’ basic rights secured over the years, a pragmatic instead of adversarial approach to the labour movement began in earnest.
The world saw a stable economic environment attractive enough for direct investment even if some naysayers saw the emasculation of labour unions. Illegal strikes were stamped out decisively.
In 1980, The Singapore Airlines Pilot’s Association (SIAPA) bore the brunt of a particularly combative Prime Minister who was never going to stand for any industrial action that would have damaged the country’s — and therefore the rank and file’s — fortunes. SIAPA was disbanded and the expatriate pilots who instigated the action were convicted.
For me, that puts paid to any notion that employers favour expats to the detriment of locals. The video clip of Lee Kuan Yew recounting his confrontation of SIAPA is one of my favourite.
But that was not when the politics-labour marriage diverged from the western model, where rank and file was and still is used to foment dissent against government. Lee had realised this right from the start – and in a speech to the employees of the Singapore Traction Company in 1959, he said, “A new phase has opened in the history of Singapore and with it comes a new phase in the trade union movement in which trade union leaders of stature must response to the needs not only of their own union members but of the community and people as a whole”.
And in a 1962 NTUC rally, he established that, “The task of the trade union movement is not just to get more wages and better conditions of service, however important this may be to recruitment and membership. Unless the movement also accepts it wider responsibilities to increase productivity and efficiency, no solid progress is possible.”
The trade unions here, under the NTUC is a completely different animal from the model that purely fights the employer for workers’ rights. It may be one that keeps getting brickbats about being ‘toothless’ from disgruntled workers because of the lack of confrontation, but it is a model that has seen unparalleled progress for this small island nation state we call home.
But importantly, in our context, it is one cog in the wheel that includes the government, the employer and the worker. It is a wheel that needs constant oiling and tweaking to keep in motion, and one which was put in motion by that giant of a union advocate.