Thinking big about micro tripartism

By focusing on replicating the tripartite partnership at the industry level, the Government is seeking to localise the overall gains of Singapore's work ethic in the immediate environments of companies and workers.

Tripartism has established itself as a guiding principle of industrial relations at the national level. By obliging management, workers and the Government to sit at the same table when addressing labour issues, tripartism has encouraged each party to view those issues at least partly through the eyes of the other two sides. The result has been a largely consensual approach to industrial relations that is free of an adversarial, acrimonious and ultimately self-defeating contest between capital and labour. In that attritional warfare, workers elsewhere have paid the price through the diminution of economic opportunity, seen in high unemployment or stubborn under-employment. Singapore has charted a different route through the global economic landscape.

Yet, for all its successes, the tripartite model has been until now mostly a "macro" exercise. The challenge is to translate its benefits tangibly into the work environment of industries in diverse sectors. These exhibit different levels of consensual commitment to industrial progress because the degree of economic opportunity and insecurity varies within them. However, they all are subject ultimately to the laws of a globalised market.

With the new direction set in sectoral tripartism, companies and their staff should benefit from productivity and skills development programmes tailored with their specific needs in mind. The financial services and marine industries are just two that could gain from the initiative.

Each sector needs to see the skills upgrading drive as its own investment in a future threatened by a maturing economy, slow growth and labour shortages. Industry associations, customarily less organised than unions, need to get up to speed in organising their members to meet such challenges. This effort will not be easy, but it must be undertaken.

Sectoral tripartism must place special emphasis on young workers, including professionals, managers and executives. They grew up in an era of high growth, so their expectations naturally are high. They were not witness to earlier wrenching times when drastic reforms of the labour market enabled Singapore to stay afloat. Any sense of entitlement born of the hard-won successes of those times needs to be tempered by economic rationality. Employers, too, should need no reminder that their profits depend on cultivating future-ready skills among all.

Tripartism can help to reiterate that message to all at the local level.