Tripartism in S’pore works, and it is something the world can learn from us 


In a country where strikes are even rarer than a blue moon, what does it mean to stand in solidarity with the workers when there are no picket lines? For the PAP, the answer lies in tripartism - a unique partnership between unions, employers and the government to achieve a win-win outcome for all stakeholders.  

While it is not easy navigating and balancing the needs of different interest groups, decades of peace in Singapore proves that tripartism, along with the cooperation and trust it brings, works better than the bickering and infighting that characterise the fractious industrial relations of many other countries. 

And yet, the tripartite model is not without its critics, who view a lack of industrial action as the result of weakened trade unions no longer being able to fight for workers’ rights. However, the dirty little secret about organised strikes is that apart from causing widespread misery, the movement hardly ever works at sustaining high wages without similar increases in productivity. Take coal miners as an example. They did not stop striking because they had gotten their demands. They stopped because the industry eventually collapsed. 

Recognising the futility of strikes and the harm they do to both the economy and social progress, Mr Lee Kwan Yew and our early leaders had the foresight to develop a new way of doing things, laying the foundation for the development of tripartism. Candidly referred to as our ‘secret sauce’, tripartism has had a formative impact on Singapore. Without the stability it brings, Singapore would have been worse off, lacking the competitive advantage to attract investments and become what it is today. Similarly, rank-and-file workers, who might have felt emboldened initially, would eventually suffer as globalisation skews their bargaining power in favour of businesses.  

Therefore, it is unfair to dismiss tripartism as a tool in which the government seeks to control workers or portray our unions as weak and ineffectual. On the contrary, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), a national confederation of trade unions and professional associations, have gone from strength to strength.  

Over the decades, NTUC has expanded its advocacy and representation to an increasingly diverse workforce, including older workers, women, migrant domestic workers and self-employed platform workers. Meanwhile, the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), representing the interest of businesses, plays a significant role in advancing their needs and promoting responsible employment practices. 

As to how NTUC and SNEF have not fallen out over a conflict of interest in labour policies, that is where the government comes in to balance it all objectively, completing the triumvirate we call tripartism that has made Singapore sui generis in so many levels. 

With all being well and good, is there still a future for tripartism in Singapore? There is the possibility that harmonious industrial relations have made tripartism look less relevant than before. But considering the uncertainties to the labour market brought about by Artificial intelligence (AI), consensus building will only get messier and more complex. Yet it is in such environments that tripartism shines, both at aligning objectives towards common interests and becoming the catalyst in which we build an inclusive and progressive society

Interested to learn more about the labour movement in Singapore and how tripartism has helped millions of Singapore workers live a better life, click here to read the eBook – Lee Kuan Yew and The Labour Unions – Inspirational Quotes from 100 Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues.  

Photo Source: Ng Chee Meng/ Yeo Wan Ling via Facebook