Unions' shift to collaborative approach 50 years ago changed course of Singapore's history: President Halimah

(From left) NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, former union leader and former NTUC vice-president Tan Soon Yam, NTUC president Mary Liew, President Halimah Yacob, NTUC deputy secretary-general and Senior Minister of State for Trade Koh Poh Koon and
(From left) NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, former union leader and former NTUC vice-president Tan Soon Yam, NTUC president Mary Liew, President Halimah Yacob, NTUC deputy secretary-general and Senior Minister of State for Trade Koh Poh Koon and content curator for the ReUnion exhibition Kevin Tan at the National Museum of Singapore on July 4, 2019.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - The 1969 Modernisation Seminar organised by the labour movement was a "revolutionary move" that changed the course of history here, President Halimah Yacob said on Thursday (July 4).

At that seminar, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which was formed in 1961, decided to take a more cooperative stance and work with the Government and employers, instead of a confrontational one.

It was a significant move in a time when strikes were rife, and contributed to the tremendous progress and industrial peace that Singapore has enjoyed all these years. But the shift was not easy, said Madam Halimah.

"It was a momentous decision which required a lot of courage and conviction on the part of the unionists as it required them to rethink their role, redefine what workers' protection means in a more holistic manner beyond just collective bargaining, and to take a stake in the future of Singapore," she said.

She was speaking at the National Museum of Singapore at an exhibition called ReUnion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the seminar.

The unions here trod a very different path than that taken by unions in both the developing and developed countries at the time, where many were part of the struggle against colonialism and the exploitation and abuse of workers, she added.

Madam Halimah, who officially opened the exhibition, said that while the context today is different, the challenges are equally daunting.

She added that the tripartite partners need to work even more closely together now, as global uncertainties weigh on Singapore's economic performance, and rapid technological advancements and the ageing population reshape jobs.


Initiatives like the industry transformation maps, Adapt and Grow programmes - which help Singaporeans affected by restructuring - and the slew of company training committees being launched are helping to prepare the economy, businesses and workers to meet the challenges, she noted.

Madam Halimah, who spent 33 years in the NTUC, said that the way the labour movement here operates is "unique and special". Pushing for productivity improvements, for example, is not a policy well received among unions in other countries.

There were debates about this in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - a global tripartite body - where foreign unions were concerned that pushing productivity would lead to job losses and the exploitation of workers, she said.

She also recounted how, when she was chairing a workshop for the workers' group in the ILO and shared about tripartism, a unionist from a big industrialised country told her after the meeting that tripartism was a "bad word" for them as they did not trust the government and employers and preferred to continue to fight them.

Madam Halimah said that in Singapore, the tripartite relationship helped, for instance, in the 2008 financial crisis when thousands of workers were retrenched.

She was then serving in the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries.

"Every phone call from companies and every call for a meeting caused a lot of trepidation," she added.

But the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience was quickly introduced, and employers worked with unions to send their excess manpower for training subsidised by the Government, instead of retrenching them.

"Many have tried to copy our model but they have not been successful.


"While they can duplicate our systems and processes such as the NWC (National Wages Council) or tripartite committees, it is the intangibles that are important - trust and confidence, and the commitment to treat each other with respect and to ensure that the benefits of industrial peace are shared," said Madam Halimah.

Another important outcome of the modernisation seminar was the setting up of NTUC cooperatives such as NTUC FairPrice and Income to help workers stretch their dollar and give unionists a chance to understand the mechanics of running businesses through their involvement on the co-op boards, she said.

Labour chief Ng Chee Meng said the NTUC will take up the President's suggestion to bring the exhibition to libraries so that more Singaporeans can experience it.

"We want to make sure that younger Singaporeans remember our history - the difficult times in the 1960s when society was not quite as cohesive as today, and when the economic situation was much worse," he told reporters at the event.

He said in a speech that the modernisation seminar came as the British armed forces, which at the time accounted for about 21,000 jobs and 14 per cent of the economy, planned to pull out from Singapore.

Union membership was also falling, from 120,000 in 1965 to 90,000 in 1969, as their role became subjugated by new laws regulating the terms and conditions of employment.

This is why the unions said "modernise or die", he said.

Over the last 50 years, the Government has kept its promise to the labour movement, employers have been fair, and workers' lives have improved, said Mr Ng.

"But how we continue to stay relevant and representative of workers cannot lose pace," he said.

"If you see the things that are happening around us, in our neighbourhood, in Hong Kong... and even in Europe today, you'll see that if we do not continue on a collaborative approach in labour management relations, what can happen," he said, referring to high youth unemployment and rife frustration.

Just as the 4G Government will partner Singaporeans to improve policies and programmes, the labour movement will also engage workers to identify and crowdsource the best solutions amid the rapid changes in society and the world, said Mr Ng.

"This will steer us well forward for the next 50 years and beyond."

The ReUnion exhibition at the glass atrium of the National Museum of Singapore runs until Nov 10. Admission is free.

Among the exhibits is a pair of watches which belonged to founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee, which were presented to them by the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers.

Mr Lee had successfully represented them in an arbitration case over a wage dispute in 1953, resulting in nearly 1,000 clerks receiving 28 months' back pay.

He started representing a large number of unions from 1952 for a nominal fee.

The watches are on display together for the first time.

Other exhibits include documents prepared for the modernisation seminar and NTUC membership cards over the years.