Recalling Singapore’s forgotten unions

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Workers put up an election campaign banner for Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in a 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

When mentioning “NTUC” to any Singaporean, the first thing that usually springs to mind is not what the potent acronym has long stood for—the National Trades Union Congress—but rather a chain of local supermarkets.

In the eyes of most Singaporeans, the NTUC is not so much a coalition of unions fighting for labor rights and justice in the wealthy island nation as a provider of reasonably priced groceries.

To the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power consecutively since 1959, the NTUC is a formidable force for support and mobilization, one that it aims to shore up before the next general election.

With expected challenging economic times ahead, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has recently emphasized the importance of maintaining a “symbiotic relationship” between the PAP and NTUC.

“This will be a key testing ground for us to identify and develop future leaders, and to maintain the close partnership between the party and unions for succeeding generations,” he said at the PAP’s annual convention in November.

The PAP’s “fourth generation” leadership—younger ministers who have been appointed following the last two general elections—is set to take on specific partnerships with the NTUC, which oversees 58 unions, two affiliated associations and 62 professional associations and guilds.

FILE PHOTO: Construction workers are suspended on a steel beam at a work site in Singapore August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

Construction workers suspended on a steel beam at a work site in Singapore August 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

While 71 PAP parliamentarians already serve as advisors to the various groups under the NTUC’s umbrella, the party now hopes to involve all 82 of their parliamentarians.

The importance the PAP attaches to union support comes in part from the party’s history. Historians note that the PAP would never have come to power without the mobilization of the anti-colonial leftist movement.

“All the successful political parties [in Singapore after the World War II] formed as the political wing of labor movements: the Labor Front, the PAP, the Workers’ Party, and the Barisan Sosialis,” said historian Thum Pingtjin.

“The PAP was initially a tiny political party led by English-speaking intellectuals, and utterly dwarfed by their allies, the ‘Middle Road’ group of trade unions led by Lim Chin Siong…The PAP relied heavily on the organizational capacity of the labor unions for its own strength,” he added.

“It was the labor unions who handled all the grassroots functions for the PAP: mobilizing their workers, connecting to the people, organizing rallies and getting people to turn up,” Thum said, noting it was the unions that put up campaign posters, bussed voters to polling stations and got out the vote for the PAP.

Once in power, the PAP’s then-leader Lee Kuan Yew swiftly recognized the importance of maintaining control over the unions. The NTUC was formed by the PAP in 1961 following a split in the party that led to its left-leaning members leaving to set up another political party, the Barisan Sosialis.

SINGAPORE: Giant rally of 63 unions at the Singapore Badminton Hall to celebrate the advent of the new PAP Government and the release of eight trade union leaders from detention. The PAP formed the new government after the Legislative Assembly elections. (3rd left - right) S Woodhull, Lim Chin Siong, C V Devan Nair, Lee Kuan Yew, Jamit SIngh]

A rally of 63 unions celebrate the advent of the PAP government and release of eight trade union leaders from detention on June 28, 1959. National founder Lee Kuan Yew is pictured second right. Photo: AFP Forum. 

The Barisan, too, set up its own group of unions, the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, but the PAP government rejected its application for registration in 1963. Prominent union leaders were also accused of being communists and detained for long periods without trial.

The NTUC has since grown into the main union organization in Singapore through its engagement in a “tripartite” relationship with the government and employers to resolve a range of labor-related issues.

Tellingly, ministers are appointed to lead the union; Chan Chun Sing, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and potential successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, currently serves as the NTUC’s Secretary General.

Such close relations between the union and the government could conceivably be a boon for labor in pushing for better conditions, higher wages and a bigger stake in the island nation’s huge wealth.

But with the ruling party’s long-held political dominance, unequal power dynamics have worked generally to the detriment of Singapore’s workers.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a September 19, 2017 photo. Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang

While there are established organizations working to improve conditions for the island state’s many migrant workers, many of whom live in harsh conditions, there is a dearth of independent organizations that represent Singaporean workers.

“The failure of the NTUC to play an independent and active role in defining and representing the rights of its members has generally left workers without adequate representation,” said Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Center at Australia’s Murdoch University.

“NTUC officials appointed as nominated members of parliament have also been remarkably timid advocates of their members’ rights. Indirectly, opposition parties and small NGOs have sought to give some representation to workers, but these efforts are necessarily constrained.”

To be sure, some gains have been made by the NTUC in alleviating certain worker concerns. But critics point to the failure of Singapore’s current labor movement in pushing for more institutional changes.

The Progressive Wage Model, for instance, stipulates a wage structure for specific industries which effectively introduces a minimum wage for particular roles.

However, the model is only mandatory for Singaporean or permanent resident workers, and currently applies to a limited number of industries, unlike a minimum wage system which would apply across the board.

Singapore’s PAP ministers, on the other hand, are among the highest paid civil servants in the world. Prime Minister Lee was scheduled to earn S$2.2 million (US$ 1.67 million) in 2017, according to reports.

Port workers are seen helping prepare the Polarcus Naila seismic surveillance ship for its next mission in Singapore, December 2, 2017.   REUTERS/Henning Gloystein

Port workers in Singapore on December 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Henning Gloystein

In 2012, then-Secretary General of the NTUC Lim Swee Say—now Minister for Manpower—famously said that a minimum wage is “something we don’t embrace.” Lim will earn S$1.1 million (US$818,625) in state-paid salary in 2017, according to reports.

Meanwhile, avenues for collective action previously undertaken by unions, such as organizing protests or strikes, have been effectively outlawed in the city-state.

When a group of migrant bus drivers from China went on strike in 2012 to protest low salaries and poor living conditions, the NTUC backed the government in describing the action as an “illegal strike.”

The PAP’s commitment to even greater involvement in the NTUC will likely not translate into significant institutional improvements for labor rights in Singapore. The party’s interest in the unions is clearly more about the influence and power it can wield by maintaining a tight grip on labor-oriented organizations.

“The declaration from PAP leaders that there will be increased involvement in the NTUC by these leaders reflects a growing concern that workers are not being effectively mobilized in support of the PAP,” said academic Rodan. “ [But] more top-down politics won’t address the shortfall in bottom-up influence by workers.”

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