PPF | Insights: On the benefits of Tripartism: Past, Present and Future 


“This fight is about a decent life for the workers.” 

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said this about his early work alongside Singapore’s labour unions during the 1950s, reminisced former Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Lim Boon Heng this past Saturday (Aug 26).

Mr Lim shared this memory at Tripartism: Past, Present and Future, which was part of a PAP Policy Forum (PPF) dialogue series that critically examines Mr Lee’s ideas about nation-building. 

Indeed, the 1950s were effortful, formative times for Mr Lee, who fought for the rights of about 50 trade unions during those years. He first secured wage increases for the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecoms Workers in May 1952.

From then on, other unions kept turning up for Mr Lee’s legal help — looking out for the working man (and woman) was fundamental to his political consciousness.

Source: Remembering.sg  

“So when the [People’s Action] Party was founded, and held its inaugural meeting on the 21st of November 1954, out of the 14 convenors, almost half were unionists including President Devan Nair and P Govindasamy. And this was the germination of the symbiosis between the PAP and the NTUC,” added Mr Lim on the beginnings of Singapore’s successful tripartite model

In fact — and appropriately when discussing tripartism benefitting not just workers, but employers and the government as well and being extremely well-supported by Singaporeans — Mr Lim’s sharing was also alongside thought leaders NTUC Vice-President K Thanaletchimi, Vice-President of the Singapore National Employers Federation Alexander Melchers and the Chairman of Tripartite Alliance Ltd Stephen Lee, and moderated by MP Yeo Wan Ling (Punggol-Pasir Ris GRC).      

Workers, employers and the government working together 

Mr Stephen Lee told his own story about Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s unique approach towards getting Singapore out of the 1985 recession: Getting workers and employers to see that cooperation to increase productivity would benefit all parties.  

“He was also very clear to the employers on the social compact: If the government can get the workers to work with employers to create a bigger pie, then the fruits of the success must be shared equitably with the workforce,” said Mr Stephen Lee, who was summoned together with other employer representatives by then-Prime Minister Lee to the Istana to make sure tripartism worked. 

“This is not a typical approach; that employers see ourselves working with unions. But if you can get the unions to cooperate with companies to ensure the success of the company, and you create a bigger pie, then employers were willing to share.” 

It was a commitment to tripartism and its benefits for Singapore’s workers that had not faded over the three decades since the PAP’s formation — and which kept on helping a new generation of workers decades later.  

As Mr Melchers pointed out, Mr Lee spoke up in 2010 at an SNEF event when asked how Singapore’s ageing population would impact tripartism.  

“I don’t think there should be a retirement age. You work as long as you can work, and you will be healthier and happier’,” quoted Mr Melchers on Mr Lee’s response. 

Mr Lee’s message, then, ended up as a touchpoint for Singapore’s tripartite partners. It sparked ideas on how to help workers and companies together encourage and engage an ageing workforce. 

For caregivers, working women and for Flexible Work Arrangements

Another benefit of tripartism came to the fore when the discussion shifted to the future of work, particularly for Flexible Work Arrangements and for Singapore’s employers, caregivers and working women.

“The standing of women has changed because of tripartism,” said Ms K Thanaletchimi. 

“It is about three social partners coming together discussing the challenges that employers would face, discussing the needs of their employees, especially the women workers who are caregivers,” she elaborated, noting too that these consultations mean forthcoming tripartite guidelines for FWAs.  

These FWAs are a cause which our members like MP Yeo champion, Petir.sg notes.

Meanwhile, as Minister for Communications and Information and PPF Advisor Josephine Teo mentioned at the dialogue, there is hardly any aspect of our lives today that has not been touched by Mr Lee’s ideas, actions and values.  

Hence Tripartism: Past, Present and Future being only the first in PPF’s dialogue series about Mr Lee. 

From Ideas to Action: Policies to Build a Nation will be chaired by former PAP Chairman Khaw Boon Wan in October. Shining Red Dot: Singapore on the World Stage will be chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in December.

The PPF will again assemble a diverse panel of thought leaders for these events. These two engagements will help keep Singaporeans thinking critically — especially during the national journey forward.