Lee Kuan Yew and NTUC – Part 2 of 3


Birth of a New Nation

Following Singapore’s independence after separation from Malaysia in 1965, the role of NTUC became even more challenging as the survival of Singapore was at stake.

In the beginnings of tripartite co-operation, the Government, NTUC and employers signed a Charter for Industrial Progress and a Productivity Code of Practice the same year.

“We went through very hard times until 1968 when the British decided to withdraw their forces.”

Lee Kuan Yew

The British Pull Out

“This was going to throw 30,000 workers in direct employment with the British Military Services out of jobs. Another 50,000 people indirectly working for the British Services — the laundrymen, the dry-cleaners, the shopkeepers and those employed in the bars and restaurants, the maids and so on — also faced unemployment.

“That challenge, that threat, that crisis enabled us to get the people together and we were able to pass the Employment Bill, changing the bad practices that had crept in where every promotion had to be discussed with the union, so the management had lost their right to manage. So we created a more orderly system which entitled management to get on with the job, but workers to get a fair deal. From then onwards, we began to make progress.”

Why The Employment Bill?

“After we won re-election in April 1968 with an overwhelming mandate, Parliament passed the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act that same year. Later, the Trade Unions Act was amended.”

“They restored to management the right to hire and fire, to promote and transfer  functions the unions had encroached upon during the years of industrial strife. They laid the foundation for industrial peace.”

Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressing the NTUC delegates’ rally on the Employment Bill in 1968.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressing the NTUC delegates’ rally on the Employment Bill in 1968.

Protecting The Workers
“We must avoid slipping into a situation where trade unionism is the practice of protecting the weakest and the slowest worker and, with everybody being paid the same wage, no worker will have any incentive to work harder than the weakest and the slowest.”

Lee Kuan Yew

The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act

“We made it illegal for a trade union to take strike or industrial action without a secret ballot. If it did so, the union and its officers would be liable to prosecution. This stopped the practice of voting by an open show of hands where dissenters were intimidated into acquiescence.”

“Seah Mui Kok, a union leader and PAP MP, another old friend from my time with the unions, objected to the wide latitude given to employers to hire and fire but accepted the need for unions to be less confrontational to create a better climate for foreign investments. I included safeguards against misuse of these powers.”

These changes in employment and industrial relations laws and practices brought tangible benefits. Within a year in 1969, 52 new factories were built, creating 17,000 new jobs. In 1970, new investments added 20,000 jobs. Incomes increased.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew opening the NTUC Modernisation Seminar in 1969.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew opening the NTUC Modernisation Seminar in 1969.

The most significant transformation of the trade union movement was the Modernisation Seminar in 1969. The Modernisation Seminar extended the activities of the unions to embrace the economic, social and recreational life of the workers.

“NTUC set up co-operatives. The first was NTUC Income, offering low income workers affordable insurance coverage. Then NTUC Comfort, enabling unlicensed taxi drivers to become owners of taxis and get a decent living. In 1973, NTUC Welcome, now known as NTUC FairPrice, put a cap on private sector businesses as to how high they can mark up their prices.”

“Trade union leaders were in charge of running these co-operatives. This gave NTUC leaders personal experience as managers, and hence better understood the problems of management. Because they were co-operatives, their prices were lower than that of ordinary businesses, and helped workers save money.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew (first row, right) at the closing session of the Plenary at the NTUC Modernisation Seminar.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew (first row, right) at the closing session of the Plenary at the NTUC Modernisation Seminar.


Self-respect And Dignity For Workers

“There is one school of thought that for rapid industrialisation in an underdeveloped country, it is better not to have trade unions…”

“Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the economy is very important. But equally important is the development of the nature of our society. We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions.”

“Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers, that protection for a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen. He may be an unskilled worker, but he is one of us.”

Fair Play, Fair Shares
“In multi-racial countries like ours, trade unions have a special role in building up this spirit of camaraderie amongst the workers. Developing the economy, increasing productivity, increasing returns, these make sense only when fair play and fair shares make it worth everyone’s while to put in his share of effort for group survival and group prosperity.”

Lee Kuan Yew



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