Lee Kuan Yew and NTUC – Part 1 of 3


Pre-Independence Era

From even before the NTUC was formed in 1961 till the nation’s independence in 1965, Singapore encountered one problem after another as revolutionary changes swept through the country.

“This decision to represent the postmen was to be a turning point in the history of the trade unions and constitutional mass action.”

Lee Kuan Yew

“Little did I know that I would be guiding union leaders in a strike that in two weeks changed the political climate. It put the colonial government on the defensive and encouraged workers’ militancy.”

“The press exposure and publicity enhanced my professional reputation. I was no longer just a brash young lawyer back from Cambridge with academic  honours. I had led striking workers, spoken up for them and was trusted by them.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressing nurses during a strike in 1963.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressing nurses during a strike in 1963.

Above quotes extracted from the book ‘The Singapore Story – Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew’, Times Editions Pte Ltd.

The Stormy Days

“There were many problems. First, most of the strong unions were organised by the communists. They had been the most active and the most successful in mobilising the lower income workers, mainly the Chinese speaking
— either dialects or Mandarin. Their purpose was not to improve industrial relations but to keep building up hatred against the employers and against the system so that the whole system could be overthrown.”
Mr Lee said that it was not until the communists were taken on in the open from 1961to 1963, “that we began to see
sunshine, some sunshine.”

Turning Point

“NTUC nearly lost to SATU (Singapore Association of Trade Unions), then communistled. They were mainly the Chinese-speaking trade unions.

Fortunately, they lost or the history of Singapore would be changed for the worse.”

Standing Up For The Working Class

“Every one of you must know that never in the history of Singapore has there been a government more sympathetic, more actively sincere in trying to better the working class.”

Mr Lee speaking at a Singapore Chinese Printing Workers’ Union event.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a Singapore Chinese Printing Workers’ Union event.

A New Phase

“On June 3 1959, the trade union movement in Singapore entered a new phase. The apparatus of the State is now in the hands of the representatives of the people, the majority of whom are workers. So, all the old frustrations, the indifference of non-cooperation of the administration, the advantage taken of this negative attitude by die-hard employers, the refusal of recognition, the rejection of negotiations, all these are gone.”

On The Workers’ Side

“May Day 1960 will always be a notable occasion in the history of the trade union movement of Singapore, for this is the first time that May Day is celebrated in Singapore when there is a government which is openly on the workers’ side.”

A section of the crowd at the 1960 May Day Rally in Jalan Besar Stadium.

A section of the crowd at the 1960 May Day Rally in Jalan Besar Stadium.

“To be a good and effective trade union leader is no longer a matter simply of getting the workers to unite and fight the employer. And if the employer refuses to settle, then to squat and suffer collectively at the factory gate and hope to make the employer’s business also suffer until he settles or closes down.”

Lee Kuan Yew

 One And The Same

“The past year, marking the first year of life of the NTUC, has been an eventful one. On the political front, democratic socialists successfully countered communist shock tactics and proved that the majority of the people were in favour of socialism by democratic means, not by communist regimentation.

“So, in the trade unions, the NTUC rallied support for its policy of militant and yet responsible trade unionism, prepared to fight against unjust and high-handed employers but with an awareness of its responsibilities to the whole community.”

You are part and parcel of the nation. The trade union movement cannot divorce itself from the struggle of the nation for survival.”

Lee Kuan Yew
1st Malaysia solidarity rally

1st Malaysian Solidarity rally

Lee Kuan Yew addressing 1st Malaysian Solidarity Rally

Lee Kuan Yew addressing 1st Malaysian Solidarity Rally

The Right People

“The maturing of the trade union movement and its leaders was helped by several dedicated and able officers I had seconded from the Government Administrative Service to the NTUC Labour Research Unit in 1962 after the communist unions broke away in 1961 from the Singapore Trade Union Congress to form their own union federation, leaving the non-communist unions without sufficient skilled negotiators…”

“…They helped the noncommunist union leaders in their collective bargaining and in presenting their cases in the Industrial Arbitration Court.

They educated union leaders on the realities of economic survival for Singapore and in the process forged an NTUC leadership that was realistic and practical.”

Source -NTUC Thisweek – Remembering Lee Kuan Yew (Special Edition)

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