Reaffirming the PAP-NTUC symbiotic relationship

By Winston Ng

On Aug 27, 2022, comrades from various branches nationwide came together with sisters and brothers from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) at the Party Headquarters for a fireside chat with NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng.

Organised by the PAP Policy Forum team, the dialogue revolved around three major topics, namely:

  • The importance of tripartism in the development of Singapore
  • The symbiotic relationship between the PAP and NTUC
  • NTUC’s #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations launched in August 2022

Tripartism: Bedrock for employment and economic progress

Comrade Ng shared that Tripartism in Singapore is the collaboration between unions, employers and the government.

In other countries, unions are often in opposition to employers to fend for workers’ interests, leading often to destructive strikes and damage to all parties. 

In Singapore however, NTUC champions workers’ interests via this collaborative model. This had helped Singapore to weather crises without our society and economy fracturing.

It took nothing less than staying united as one nation to weather severe crises at four critical historical points: the oil shock of the 70s, Singapore’s first recession in 1985, the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Through these NTUC worked to persuade employers to hold on to their workers and advised the government on how it could help workers and companies.

Retrenchments were carried out as a last resort, after considering cost-cutting measures, wage-cuts or secondments. And if retrenchments must take place, employers must follow the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment (TAMEM), ensuring that retrenched workers received a fair retrenchment package and support from NTUC for placement to a new job.

Tripartism had allowed Singapore to retain its competitive advantage through harmonious labour relations. But it must be conscientiously sustained by efforts from employers, unions and the government, and must not be taken for granted.

The PAP-NTUC symbiotic relationship

Comrade Ng also emphasized that NTUC and the PAP’s relationship was a longstanding 60 years and beyond.

PAP’s inaugural meeting on Nov 21, 1954 marked the beginning of the PAP-NTUC symbiosis. Half of the meeting’s convenors were unionists. They included former president Devan Nair, former Minister Othman Wok and Mr P. Govindasamy.

The Party’s formation was backed by strong support from various unions. Indeed, our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, fought alongside the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in 1952. He represented up to 100 unions and associations as their legal adviser to secure fairer treatment of workers. The symbiotic relationship continues today, where we regularly have PAP MPs advise unions or join NTUC in various capacities.

“We had grown up in the unions; we had built up our political following working on and through workers’ problems, fighting against unfair treatment and injustice.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Working with the PAP, NTUC had been a social stabiliser in Singapore’s economy and society. It represented the interests of different worker groups, championed for inclusive growth, and imbued confidence for the future in Singaporeans. This relationship meant that workers have a seat at the table and have their concerns and aspirations heard. This synergy was almost unique in the world.

It was only possible because of the trust between the party and NTUC.

#EveryWorkerMatters Conversations x Forward Singapore Exercise

Comrade Ng also invited party comrades present to ask questions pertaining to the key themes of the dialogue:

On cost of living

“FairPrice remains firmly rooted to its social purpose.” 

Responding to a question on the price-competitiveness of NTUC FairPrice, Comrade Ng said that FairPrice remained firmly rooted in its social purpose. He reminded everyone that FairPrice regularly donates to organisations to do good and uplifts the less privileged. It also provided rebates for NTUC members when they purchase from its stores. In addition, price checks were conducted daily essentials sold at FairPrice are price-checked regularly to ensure affordability.

In the face of price increases, for instance, FairPrice took the lead by lowering prices for eggs and Covid-19 test kits, and the market moved along with It. It effectively brought market prices down in a calibrated and sustainable way.

On wages

“Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Responding to a question about the effectiveness of Progressive Wage Model (PWM), Comrade Ng said that wages must be increased sustainably to ensure businesses in Singapore survive. Wage increases are best paired with productivity increase.  NTUC wanted businesses to succeed: an outright imposition of the minimum wage could raise wages beyond what some companies can bear. A minimum wage can become a wage ceiling when some employers take this to be “the” wage, regardless of a worker’s productivity.  Ultimately, to have sustainable wage increases, we must also ensure businesses can thrive.  Otherwise, unsustainable wage increases can kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

In closing

Comrade Ng closed the dialogue session by inviting party comrades to participate or volunteer to help out in NTUC’s #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations, launched in August this year.

The Conversations would engage the working people of Singapore to better understand their hopes and aspirations around work and life, and champion these interests. NTUC wanted to forge a workers’ compact, resulting in jobs that we could be proud of, and a future that we could look forward to.

In particular, NTUC would like to ask how it could:

  • Enable worker to upgrade skills and compete in this new environment?
  • Better protect vulnerable workers amongst us?
  • Give workers greater assurance as their needs in life evolve?

Comrade Ng penned a letter to the working people of Singapore to accompany the launch of the Conversations. In the letter, he invited all workers, whether blue or white collar, younger or older, in employment or freelancers, to join the Conversations.

You can read Comrade Ng’s full letter here.

Cover photo credit: National Trades Union Congress