Lee Kuan Yew long knew the value of tripartite partnerships

The labour disputes often seen in other countries, where worker strikes and employer distrust ultimately hurt ordinary people, were not for our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.  

It was a pragmatic viewpoint stemming from Mr Lee’s longtime friendship with labour unions; he represented about 50 trade unions against colonial oppression when he was a young crusading lawyer. 

Indeed, the unique tripartite partnership he nurtured between workers, employers and the government was a “secret sauce” which made Singapore prosper.  

His thinking on what these partners can do for each other steered Singapore successfully into the First World — no matter what the times threw at us.   

March 1959: Mass rally in Geylang Serai 

“Our guiding principle is ‘Industrial peace with justice’. Industrial peace alone brought about by enforcing ‘law and order’ is unjust to the workers . . .” 

“But at the same time we must all remember that if we seek industrial justice with a vengeance, there will be no industrial peace. And a chronic state of industrial unrest means wrecking the economy. . . Our policy will be framed not only to secure justice for labour but also to ensure industrial peace for the further expansion of the economy.” 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

The spirit of Merdeka! was in the air at the start of 1959. The British colonialists were exiting our island and the new (August 1 1958) State of Singapore Act meant that we would govern ourselves after the General Elections in May. 

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as leader of the PAP, campaigned far and wide across the island: it was vital that Singaporeans have a secure future.  

It would have been easy in those days (and in fact most other days) to campaign on a populist track, proclaiming to workers that they should unite, overthrow their employers and create a worker’s paradise.  

But Mr Lee was more pragmatic than that: What happens afterwards to workers and employers when one party is made the sacrifice?  

He said as much to the workers and other ordinary Singaporeans gathered at his rallies, as the quote above shows; he did not selectively omit the hard truth about populist promises.     

Our pioneers were a savvy lot, respecting Mr Lee’s forthrightness and the fact that he did not speak down to them as populists always do. The PAP won the General Election in a landslide — 43 of out 51 seats and 54 per cent of the vote — and Mr Lee as new Prime Minister could now put into place his vision for a Singapore where workers and employers would prosper together.     

November 1969: Opening the NTUC Delegates Seminar  

“Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the economy is very important. But equally important is the development of the nature of our society. We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions.”  

“To survive as a separate and distinct community we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we fail. You can neither be proud nor rugged if you have not got self-respect. Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers, that protection for a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.” 

Source: NTUC 

What do you have as a worker if self-respect is not your foundation?  

Not much, really. Plus, it sets you up for exploitation by bosses and then acrimonious relations on both sides; it is a vicious cycle waiting to get set in motion. 

Singapore was climbing towards industrialisation by the late 1960s. The Jurong Town Corporation had been formed the previous year to develop Singapore’s industries, in particular the nation’s first industrial estate. Keppel Shipyard and Neptune Orient Lines too, had recently been founded to fill the insistent void in maritime services which the British Royal Navy had left behind.  

Many workers were needed to staff this climb.   

Hence Mr Lee insisting that NTUC leaders look out for the fundamental dignity of workers at this time of “intense effort”, and admonishing bosses against yes-men. This positive reinforcement would fulfil workers and help them see that they were co-owners and co-creators of a new society.       

He may be an unskilled worker, but he is one of us,” emphasised Mr Lee.  

October 1989: The NTUC Workshop, The Future Direction of the Labour Movement

“The achievements of the NTUC can be summed up in the dignity, a sense of their worth and fair value for their work that the NTUC has given to Singapore workers…” 

“Each generation of union leaders must earn afresh the trust and respect of the workers they lead and of the managers they negotiate with. Similarly, managers must also earn the trust and respect of their workers and union leaders. Unions must remember that for their workers to do well, they must balance the needs of their workers with those of management, and of government, that is the context in which tripartism can succeed.” 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Forty years after that mass rally in Geylang Serai quoted above, Mr Lee could look back in October 1989 on how the NTUC had improved the lives of generations of Singapore’s workers. Now, (by way of example) workers who put in an honest day’s work could go on overseas holidays exactly like executives. 

The business of tripartism, also, was firmly about mutual co-operation for more than workers’ wages. Better wages, better perks, better terms and conditions of service were now the norm as Singapore’s economy restructured towards high-value, capital-intensive industries and companies. 

That said, Mr Lee was there to remind unionists about the fundamentals of tripartism. These have not changed, even in 2023.  

Our PAP government and the NTUC remain staunch partners, together looking out for Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) in the sandwich generation, women who want to return to work and making the workplace fairer and more equitable for diverse Singaporeans.  

And this will not change. As Singapore’s history shows, success is not a zero-sum game. It is for all who work together towards it. 

An ebook, Lee Kuan Yew and the Labour Unions – Inspirational Quotes from 100 Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues launches this Saturday (Aug 26) at the inaugural PPF | Insights dialogue Tripartism: Past, Present and Future. This is a new initiative by the PAP Policy Forum (PPF) to engage Singaporeans in lively dialogues on the social and political issues affecting our lives.