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It was reported on Wednesday that National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC) chief Mr Lim Swee Say said that the NTUC wants to “become an independent voice for workers in Singapore”. Mr Lim may not realise it but he just admitted that the NTUC has not been an independent voice all these decades. And he is exactly right.
Mr Lim who is also a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office was talking about 75% of the trade unions endorsing Dr Tony Tan as the candidate for president while the remaining 25 per cent chose to remain neutral.
Mr Lim used this outcome to show that the NTUC wanted to become an independent organisation. Independent from what, one may ask?
The NTUC was formed when the now defunct Singapore Trade Unions Congress (STUC) split and gave rise to the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) which later became the NTUC and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Mr Lim Chin Siong had fought for the control of the STUC. When it splintered in 1961, Mr Lee controlled the TUC while Mr Lim led SATU.
This mirrored the split within the PAP itself. When Mr Lim left the party to form the Barisan Sosialis, he took with him the meat and bones of the PAP as well as STUC. Mr Lim was by far the more popular national leader with the party and the labour movement.
But because the British supported Mr Lee who was also the prime minister then, Mr Lim Chin Siong was arrested and detained without trial under Operation Coldstore in 1963.
With Mr Lim and other leaders of SATU behind bars, the PAP quickly established NTUC as the umbrella labour organisation in Singapore.
Since then the PAP Government has appointed one of its ministers to head the NTUC in every administration. It systematically crushed any independent labour movement in Singapore and removed the rights of workers to organise themselves.
Today, workers have little or no bargaining power resulting in their exploitation. For example, older workers have to perform the same kind of work with lesser pay and reduced medical coverage and leave. All this has resulted in income disparity in Singapore which is one of the highest in the world.
Now Mr Lim Swee Say says that he wants the NTUC to become independent. If Mr Lim wants to be taken seriously, he should step down as secretary-general of the NTUC and the Government should relinquish its control of the labour movement. It should also amend the Trade Unions Act and allow workers to freely organise their own unions.
But like everything else, statements of liberalisation are platitudes that the PAP uses to placate Singaporeans with no serious or substantive change intended. Mr Lim’s words fool no one.