SINCE THE 1960s when the government used the ISA to imprison trade unionists, the PAP has launched a relentless campaign against trade unions. In 1966, the government passed the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act, making strikes and other industrial actions illegal unless approved through secret ballot by a majority of a union’s members. Sympathy strikes were also outlawed, as was the formation of a federation of unions for workers in essential services.

Government-run trade union

The National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC) was formed to act as an umbrella labour organisation in Singapore. In the late 1970s, the Government rewrote the NTUC’s charter to enable non-members to assume key posts in the organisation. Half of the union’s governing body and one-third of its delegates could now be filled by Government appointees. Today, the Union’s secretary-general is a cabinet minister and the six assistant secretary-generals are all PAP MPs.

This “concern” was amply demonstrated in January 1986, when Ong Teng Cheong, then deputy prime minister and NTUC secretary-general, sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry. Ong said that he did not tell the cabinet about his decision, which incurred the wrath of some of the ministers in the process. “The minister for trade and industry was very angry,” he revealed, “his officers were very upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?—we are non-strike. I said: if I were to inform the cabinet or the Government they would probably stop me from going ahead with the strike.” There have been no strikes since then.

The PAP-NTUC nexus has been strengthened through the years. Union officials who ran in elections as part of an opposition party were asked to step down. The NTUC leadership has made it very clear that it shares “the same political ideology as the PAP and maintains a symbiotic relationship with the party.”

Not surprisingly, the Singapore worker grew increasingly skeptical of the role of the NTUC. More and more workers started to disassociate themselves with the Union. Given that there were no alternatives, they became more and more vulnerable often at the mercy of employers who had the power to terminate the services of an employee by reason of redundancy or reorganization.

One-way ticket for SIA pilots

One union that did not come under the control of the NTUC tried to exert its independence. In 1980 the Singapore Airlines Pilots’ Association called for a members’ work-to-rule action and, in doing so, disrupted the schedules of several Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) flights. Lee Kuan Yew personally confronted the pilots. As a consequence, the association was de-registered and the officials of the union prosecuted.

State intervention may have closed down the pilots’ union but disputes between SIA’s management and its pilots popped up from time to time. In happened again in 2004 when the another pilots’ union the Airline Pilots’ Association-Singapore (ALPA-S) accused its leadership of being weak in negotiations with the management over retrenchments the airlines made several months earlier.

At one of its meetings, members called for the leadership to resign and for union elections to be held to elect leaders who would be take a stronger stance in negotiations. Again Lee Kuan Yew stepped in and singled out a member, pilot Ryan Goh, for campaigning for a new and more assertive ALPA-S leadership. Lee, through his state agencies, dredged up the pilot’s personal history and accused Ryan Goh of not having any loyalties to Singapore (Goh was a Malaysian who was a permanent resident in Singapore for many years). Goh’s permanent residency status was revoked and he had to leave Singapore.

The government subsequently amended the Trade Unions Act to allow leaders of labour unions to arrive at agreements with management without having to seek the consent of union members.

Are Singaporean workers well-paid?

There is no legislation requiring minimum wage in Singapore and retrenchment entitlements for laid-off workers. As a result Singaporean workers, especially those employed in manual labour, are relatively among the worst paid in the world. The median wage of an office cleaner or driver, adjusted for productivity, ‘is among the lowest in 59 countries worldwide.’ Only Russia, the Ukraine, and Ecuador are paid less. Secretaries don’t do much better; their wages rank fiftieth among the 59 countries.

You may also wish to note that Singapore’s gross domestic product per capita is 25 times greater than Indonesia’s while Perc says its average labour costs are only 1.6 times as great. This sort of disparity with neighbouring countries is common and suggests that Singapore workers are underpaid for their level of productivity.

Is it any wonder then that the financial liabilities of Singaporeans soared from 118 per cent of personal disposable income in 1995 to 174 percent in 2000, by far making the nation’s household sector among the most heavily indebted in the world, relative to disposable income and GDP. The figure for 2000 is significantly higher than those for the UK at 116 percent), Japan at 100 percent), the US at 90 percent and France at 54 percent. In addition relative to GDP, Singapore’s total household-sector financial liabilities are also the highest at 88 percent.


Legislation introduced in the 1960s was primarily designed to make Singapore an attractive centre for foreign investments during the country’s formative years following Independence. Wide-ranging discretionary powers have been given to the minister to decide of labour-related matters. This must necessarily be curtailed in the light that the Government has positioned itself as a business entity with the people as its employees.

Through all these years, however, Singapore’s economy has been unable to graduate from being a provider for the manufacturing needs of MNCs. Without fundamental changes to labour laws such as the Employment Act, Trade Unions Act, and the Industrial Relations Act, the Singapore worker will remain firmly stuck on the treadmill.

Singapore must also ratify international labour and human rights instruments such as those put forth by the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. Rights of women, elderly, and overseas workers must be protected. As it is, many of the workers in these categories are left to the vagaries of employers and have led to unacceptable standards of labour conditions.

The Government must support freedom for workers as enthusiastically as it campaigns for free trade for businesses. Only with a balanced approached can development be holistic and sustainable.

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