My Father And The Gangster Fella Lee Kuan Yew

I remember the story my father told me about the time he was a clerk in a bus company in Singapore. It was some time in the 1950s, and some of us will recall that these were troubled times.

I didn’t get much detail from the many times my father told and retold the story with much mirth and in gutteral Hainanese-accented English. But it always went something like this:

“I was working in the bus company lah, as an accounts clerk, keeping the books. Then one day this man came and kicked the door open like a gangster. He walked to my table and banged the table and shouted at me: Show me your books!

My manager said to me, ‘Young Mr Lee, please show the books to senior Mr Lee’.”

Wah, like a hooligan, the fella. I was scared. So I just show him the books, and he shouted here and there and I just followed his instructions”.

The fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee that he spoke about was Lee Kuan Yew, who was then a lawyer from Laycock & Ong, and was representing several trade and students’ unions.

The time that my father recounted might have been the one where the labour union movement and politics became indelibly intertwined – something which you could say is still the status quo, and something to which you might react by saying, “Ah, see lah! This NTUC is Gahmen what! How to help you?”

But before you kowpeh further about how Singapore is Uniquely like that, you may want to know that the same kind of history is shared with the Labour Party of the UK, the Australian Labor Party and many other countries where labour organisations have sought political representation.

The early history of the National Trades Union Congress makes for some exciting reading, but critics of the Government will quickly point out that the NTUC was forged from some iron-fisted politicking, as illustrated by Operation Coldstore.

Following the decade of unrest and violence which culminated in the Hock Lee Bus riots which left 4 people dead and crippled the city’s transport system, the Government enacted the Industrial Relations (Amendments) Act of 1968, severely limiting workers’ rights to strike.

Where did this leave the NTUC with its close ties to the ruling party? In its own words, it adopted a “cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers”.

This was crucial in the infancy of the newly independent country, and I along with many of my peers, know that it was this basic set up of cooperation which paved the way for direct foreign investment.

International companies started setting up factories in the newly cleared Jurong marshes, branch offices in the Robinson Road/Cecil Street/D’Almeida Street areas. And when I was old enough to listen to my father’s story of his encounter with Lee Kuan Yew, it was the 1970s, and we were on the cusp of this fantastic economic boom that propelled us past the rest of our Asian neighbours bar Japan.

This would not have been possible if the trade unions maintained an adversarial approach then. But you’d be right to point out that that’s just history, and you’d be right to ask how relevant the NTUC is in present climes. I’ll be helping you look for the answer.

Meantime, please enjoy this clip of the fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee not mincing words about some recalcitrant striking pilots.

Cheaper Better Faster

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The Labour Movement should not let Lim Swee Say it himself. Not since the 1990s, when Goh Chok Tong spouted all manner of football analogies, has anyone generated so much interest over his own slogans and turns of phrases.

It’s been three and a half years since the NTUC’s Secretary-General first exhorted the country’s workers to be part of a Cheaper, Better, Faster (CBF*) economy, and I haven’t stopped hearing people talking about how the blardy gahmen wants to make them cheaper better and faster. It’s been detracting people from the real issues the NTUC and the MOM have been trying to tackle, and quite unfortunately a lot of people think this is how the NTUC has made its mark this last decade.

Actually, any slogan that starts with or has the word “cheap” or “cheaper” in it is asking for trouble: Courtesy is for Cheap. Cheap Better Best. Cheaper is Enough. You get the picture. It makes you want to go to Sim Lim Square and haggle with a salesman over an iPhone 5 knock-off.

Then a fortnight ago Mr Lim was quoted in the papers as saying that the country needed not only to “bite the bullet, not one, but three bullets”. I took it to mean the Cheaper Bullet, Better Bullet and Faster Bullet because I couldn’t find anything else in the article that explained what those bullets were and why they needed biting.

I was invited last month to a social media/bloggers’ dinner (catered by Smiling Orchid, no less) and briefing at NTUC Centre on One Marina Boulevard and learned about the (silver, supposedly) bullet that the NTUC didn’t want anyone to bite – A National Minimum Wage.

As we all know now, the purported rejection of Minimum Wage by the NTUC – announced by, of all people to announce it, the Sec-Gen himself, instigated a tirade against The NTUC,  Dis Gahmen and That Minister, which hasn’t shown signs of abating. The tirade generally goes along the lines of:

“WTF is this Progressive Wage Model? Dowan to pay people more just say so lah!”

I don’t know whether it’s because you can’t get the full picture on ST or if the glossy infographics on NTUC’s own online media just makes your eyes glaze over, but if you had looked hard at what Mr Lim Swee Say was saying, you’d realise that nobody is rejecting the Minimum Wage.

I support the view that if you were to introduce a mandatory minimum wage in any industry, at a level high enough to make any meaningful difference to real wages, you WILL see unemployment, and the lower income group will be the first to suffer as unemployment becomes institutionalized, as has been the case in every country with a national minimum wage.

The good thing for us is that NTUC has been working on a solution to what they see as a great social cost of economic growth. It’s a calibrated and adjustable solution, where wage increases are pegged to “job/skill productivity enhancements” which have been made easier through funding from other labour institutions.

If I could tell Lim Swee Say what to say to the public so that the NTUC gets a better rap, I’d tell him to call what he’s scribbled on the paper sheets the Minimum Wage Plus instead of Progressive Wage Model because it’d have sounded less like the PWM was a substitute for Minimum Wage.

I’d also ask him to tell the public that he really goes to the MOM to Kow Peh Kow Bu about protecting workers, and that under his watch, the NTUC has actually forced the MOM to make changes to the Employment Act.

I’d ask him to tell the press what he said to EDB when they asked him, “where am I going to get the money to fund your workers’ upgrading courses”?

I would ask him to go on record as having said, “Not my problem. You go and find the money or else you won’t have an economy to develop”. (ok I paraphrase a little but I think he said something to that effect).

I’d tell him to summon the blardy SPH’s and Mediacorp’s news outlets and tell them to print a statement that he wanted the economy that was CHEAPER THAN SILICON VALLEY, BETTER THAN CHINA and FASTER THAN KOREA BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A COMPETITIVE, HIGHLY SKILLED, ADAPTABLE AND INTELLIGENT WORK FORCE.

But what to do? People like to shoot them (with the bullets they’ve been asked to bite) whatever they do.

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*It is very unfortunate that the nation’s labour movement has kept an unintentional tradition of using dubious acronyms: CBF is what the NTUC which was formerly known as SFTU coined. (And they banned FCUK because it was suggestive, wah lao eh).

The Progressive Wage Model Looks Horrible On Paper (Literally)

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I am extremely impressed at NTUC Secretary-General’s aversion to Powerpoint. I would have switched off at probably the second slide or so if he had used it.

Instead (you can see an example of his freehand presentation in this video at 0:53s) there was a refreshingly engaging encounter as Mr Lim Swee Say spent over two hours explaining the role of the NTUC, how he got to become Secretary-General, and what his aims were in trying to improve the labour market situation as well as ameliorate the social costs of economic growth.

Unless you’re an economist, or labour market policy maker, you’re likely to still find the session as interesting as watching the glowing logo on top of the NTUC Centre building change colour. Or less.

I was still curious to know why there was an aversion to a mandatory national minimum wage, or even different minimum wages for different industries. Some supporters of minimum wage already claim that Singapore isn’t doing enough to lift the lowest wages off the floor, like what Hong Kong (HKD 3,580 per month for foreign domestic workers) and Malaysia (USD 281.60 per month for the private sector) are doing.

There is no such thing as the perfect market, and Mr Upturn The Downturn gave a refresher course on labour economics for those turned off because a junior college economics lecturer insisted on referring to something called “Kee-Nee-Sian” economics. (It was only in my first semester of university, after having been made the laughing stock of my first year econs class that I started pronouncing it as students of John Maynard Keynes intended.)

Two permanent ink marker pens and six sheets later, I was aware of a thing called the Progressive Wage Model, as opposed to a silver bullet or “shock therapy” Minimum Wage Model proposed by some.

Instead of merely boosting pay, the labour movement has been, since June last year, aiming to improve the lowest earning workers’ “productivity, skills and career prospects” by means of highly subsidised skills training. The NTUC has also been apparently instrumental in getting government ministries and agencies – themselves very large employers, to only engage companies who let their staff participate in skills training – a move which will earn them accreditation necessary to win government contracts.

The NTUC also has to work in concert with Government to ensure that jobs are created, and that these jobs are filled without employers resorting to and relying on cheap, imported labour at the expense of productivity.

It is a tough balance to strike, and whether the Progressive Wage Model is a better model than a one-stop Minimum Wage as Lim Swee Say says it is may be a bit too early to tell.

I will have you all know that it hasn’t got much to do with Cheaperer, Betterer, Fasterer. The Secretary-General did attempt to explain his much maligned motto in context, but that’s for another story.