Why is there such a close link between NTUC and PAP?

Mention NTUC now and most people will think of the supermarket. Indeed, few Singaporeans will understand what a trade union is or the main function of NTUC.

So, what exactly is NTUC if not (just) the supermarket?

NTUC, which stands for the National Trades Union Congress, is a national confederation of trade unions.

That sounds kinda “cheem”, but it essentially means that NTUC is an organisation that consists of unions which are in alliance with them.

They aim to help workers improve wages, welfare and work prospects. They also step in to negotiate when workers face any disputes in the workplace, such as wrongful termination or retrenchment disguised as termination.

Hmm, then what about NTUC’s link to PAP?

The simple and straight explanation is that the PAP has its roots in the unions.

PAP’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, began his political life by representing unions. Many founding members of the PAP were also unionists.

first PAP CEC protem committee
The first PAP CEC Protem Committee. More than half were from the trade unions.

The PAP was formally inaugurated on 21 November 1954 at the Victoria Memorial Hall. 1500 people attended the event. Two-thirds were PAP supporters from the unions.

More than half of the PAP first CEC protem committee were from the trade unions. They included Perumal Govindasamy, Lee Gek Seng, Ismail Rahim, A.K. Karrupiah, Mofradi bin Haji Mohd Noor, S. Socklingam, Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan.

Thus when the PAP talks about a symbiotic relationship with NTUC, they are not being rhetorical. They are making factual statements. The close links between PAP and unions existed even before the formation of NTUC. Mr Devan Nair described this close link as ‘umbilical’.

The PAP’s intimate relationship with the NTUC cannot be doubted for the reason that it sponsored the formation of NTUC after the split of the Barisan Socialis from the PAP.

The PAP was pragmatic, and they focused on helping workers and jobs. They believed that helping Singaporeans get jobs and creating a strong economy was the only way Singapore could survive.

In the past, trade unions were influenced by communists to riot, go on strike and cause trouble. Hence, Singapore had to create a trade union movement that was designed to be peaceful – one that looked after both the interests of employees and employers.

Is this link good?

In the early years, grassroots union leaders joined the PAP and stood for election to voice workers’ concerns in Parliament. This has made a qualitative difference to the welfare of workers. It gave unions easy access to ministers. This has empowered them.

Mr  Lee Kuan Yew said in 2012:

“Without their disciplined intellectual input and their easy access to ministers, the case for the unions would not be put across in a way that would command attention and from time to time bring about a revision of policies.”

Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew with union leaders at the NTUC Labour Leadership Appreciation Dinner in 2012
Mr Lee Kuan Yew with union leaders at the NTUC Labour Leadership Appreciation Dinner in 2012.

Unionists shaped policies

The close link between the PAP and NTUC has allowed unionists to shape policies that affect workers. Definitely a plus for workers.

“From the early 1980s, we put trade union leaders on key statutory boards so that they will understand and shape the policies of the boards. It is especially valuable for our public organisations to have the voice of the unionists on public policies. They were our channels for feedback and helped refine our policies. It made union leaders take ownership of these policies, so they mobilised their fellow unionists and their workers to make them successful.”

–  Lee Kuan Yew, 2011 –

Today, Labour MPs like Patrick Tay continues to shape policies as he provides his intellectual input in Parliament. The Fair Consideration Framework is Patrick’s baby. He also successfully pushed for the removal of the salary cap and for the Employment Act to be amended to cover all PMET workers. The Progressive Wage Model is the brainchild of former Secretary-General of NTUC, Mr Lim Swee Say.  The result is better wages for workers with pathways for career progression and higher wages.

Unionists are agents of change together with the Government

In the 1980s, the NTUC began to train and retrain workers to help them become more productive and to reduce the risk of unemployment.

“Our trade union leaders and their members have been agents of change. Unlike the old British and European trade unions, they accepted new technology and new ways of working. They helped workers overcome the risk of unemployment due to the increasing use of computers and other new technologies.

Together with the Government, they set up computer appreciation classes for the workers. As a result, workers did not fear becoming redundant because of computers or have their pay reduced. Instead, the training in the use of computers helped the workers increase their productivity and wages.”

Lee Kuan Yew

Age of computer NTUC
NTUC’s computer appreciation drive to help workers get used to computers

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Today, the NTUC remains steadfast in this mission of helping workers stay employable.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 2012, the NTUC helped to create jobs and upgrade skills for our workers to live a better life in the first 50 years of the Labour Movement.  Today, this challenge has become even greater. With the upheavals in the world, nothing is more urgent than skill-training, and ensuring workers’ employability.

The close link has benefited workers through better policies, better jobs, better prospects and better protection. Today, we continue to see how the close link between Government and NTUC benefits workers. Unions are working closely with the Government and employers to create jobs for workers, match workers to new jobs or put them in traineeships.

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So, this link is good?

Wouldn’t it be more useful for unions to work with the Government to sort out issues before they become a problem on the ground, ie. a riot? That is why unions all over the world align themselves to political parties and NTUC is no different.

By having Labour MPs in the Parliament, they can fight for various workers’ rights and raise issues in Parliament. The Government then takes these feedback and issues into consideration to improve the situation for workers accordingly.

To sum up, the close link between the PAP Government and the NTUC means direct feedback for the government from the ground. It also means union leaders are able to put their cause across in a manner that commands the attention of the government. This allows them to play an active part in shaping policies that affect workers. It also allows them to work closely with the government to carry out effective programmes that benefit workers.

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