The ReUnion exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the National Trades Union Congress' Modernisation Seminar, could provide a retrospective on the way ahead for the labour movement. The seminar prepared the way for unions to take on a wider remit, beyond collective bargaining. It also set the stage for tripartite efforts between the unions, employers and the Government that transformed the industrial scene. Militant unionism, which included strikes instigated as part of broader political agendas, had defined the labour landscape. At the heart of the discord lay an attempt to gain control of the political direction of late-colonial and early-independent Singapore. Coming just four years after independence in 1965, the modernisation seminar pointed to a future of hope in which labour, capital and the state could join hands. Singapore's economic transition would not have been possible without that change in the way in which unions and businesses viewed each other, with the Government playing an impartial role.
Half a century down the economic road, the challenges for tripartism are no less intense than they were then. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is under way, threatens labour with a frightening degree of challenges, requiring changes to mindsets, skills requirements and mastering technology. Artificial intelligence, for instance, is redrawing the contours of automation and when employers invest in it, that inevitably generates fear within the workforce about redundancies that may follow. In the bold new economy, the concern among some is not that employees will be unnecessary but that many of those doing the work may not be human. Robotics is moving from science laboratories to the factory floors.