SINGAPORE - Singapore might not have weathered its early crises or industrialised so rapidly were it not for the close relationship between the People's Action Party and NTUC, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Faced with the threat of massive job losses in the early years of independence, the Government had to act decisively to welcome investors, industrialise and create jobs, said Mr Heng in his first May Day Rally speech on Wednesday (May 1).
Unions had to evolve as well at this time, he told around 1,600 unionists, workers, employers and Cabinet ministers at the rally in Downtown East.
"They were no longer just the mass base in the anti-colonial movement. We had to build a new nation, and unionists too had to become nation builders," said Mr Heng, who assumed the post of DPM on Wednesday. He is also Finance Minister.
He pointed to the 1969 Modernisation Seminar as a landmark event, as that was when unionists agreed that trade unions had to go beyond collective bargaining.
If the labour movement had not transformed itself in the 1970s, it would have become irrelevant in post-independence Singapore and its membership would have declined, he said.
"To improve the lives of workers, unions had to become the co-drivers of our social and economic development," Mr Heng said. "And unions had to shift from confrontation to collaboration."
The seminar paved the way for tripartism, ushering in "constructive and harmonious relations between unions, employers and the Government", he said, highlighting NTUC initiatives such as setting up ocooperatives to help workers cope with the cost of living.
Running cooperatives gave union leaders insights to the problems of running businesses as well, helping to shift their adversarial stance towards management to one based on cooperation and mutual benefit.
"NTUC's brand of progrssive trade unionism has been critical in enabling our workers to stay ahead of changes," Mr Heng said.
The tripartite model has also helped in times of crises such as the 1985 recession, when union leaders supported the Government's proposals for a two-year wage restraint and 15 per cent cut in Central Provident Fund contribution rates for employers.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow. But the unionists understood why we had to do this - to save jobs - and convinced their members," he said. "Thanks to the support of workers, we managed to turn the economy around."
Along the way, government officials and unionists forged close working relationships, he noted.
Lauding the unionists who embarked on NTUC's modernisation journey 50 years ago, he noted that many who attended the seminar in 1969 had little formal education.
"Many of then did not speak English, and NTUC had to provide simultaneous translation into all four languages," he said.
"But these ordinary men and women had deep courage and the future in their bones, and they did extraordinary things," he added. "They modernised themselves, the movement and their country by the bootstraps. We are here today because of them."
Noting that the seminar was the product of a close NTUC-PAP symbiosis, Mr Heng said: "This close working relationship between the PAP and NTUC underpins our brand of tripartism. It remains as vital today, as it was in 1969."
Mr Heng also recounted how the relationship between NTUC and PAP was forged, saying: "Unionists knew they had to enter politics to fight for better lives for workers, and politicians knew they had to mobilise workers if they were to have a mass base."
He highlighted that many founding members of the PAP were unionists, with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew beginning his political life as a lawyer representing the postal workers' union.
While the PAP tried to revitalise the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC) after being elected to office in 1959, the effort failed as there were both communists and non-communists in the STUC.
When the PAP split in 1961, the STUC also broke apart - unions supporting the Barisan Socialis formed the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, and those supporting the PAP formed the National Trades Union Congress.
"But the PAP prevailed in the political struggle against the Barisan. And as a result, the NTUC too prevailed in the battle for hearts and minds of workers," he said to applause from the audience.
"The heated political struggle of the 1960s was the crucible that forged the close bonds between the PAP and NTUC," Mr Heng said.
"It was a close, symbiotic relationship from the beginning."