Merely A Near Namesake

I remember him telling me how in 1965 when he watched the televised announcement of Separation, that he was sure “we were finished”, and how he had expected to have to knuckle down and prepare for hard times.

Mr & Mrs Lee Kuan Yew in 1969

I’ve just realised how much my father was affected and impressed by Lee Kuan Yew.

I remember him telling me how in 1965 when he watched the televised announcement of Separation, that he was sure “we were finished”, and how he had expected to have to knuckle down and prepare for hard times.

Things turned out very differently, and by 1969 it looked and felt like we were put on the road to economic prosperity. And so when I was born that year, he decided that I should be named in honour of the Prime Minister, but with a slight enough difference that I wouldn’t be forever ridiculed in school.

And so my Chinese name is just a couple of strokes off Lee Kuan Yew’s (whose hanyu pinyin name was Li Guangyao, and mine is Li Shiyao), but close enough to retain some of the same meaning.

My father didn’t stop there. Because the Prime Minister’s sons attended primary school at Catholic High, he decided that my brother and I would both have the same quality Chinese education as the PM’s boys. It didn’t quite work out, of course, as we both went to ACS after dragging the CL1 standard of that vaunted SAP school to abysmal lows.

A Comrade of The Workers

"On behalf of the Labour Movement, farewell comrade, farewell" – S.R. Nathan #RememberingLKY

A photo posted by Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee (@miyagisan) on

Lee Kuan Yew began his political career representing trade unions while as a young lawyer with the firm Laycock & Ong. Mr Lee started winning over the rank and file who saw someone who was able to fight for their rights, whether it was for higher wages or a change in the design of the postal workers’ uniforms that would make them look less like ‘circus attendants’. I’ve mentioned previously how my father met a thuggish ‘elder Mr Lee’ in that incarnation as a union lawyer here.

While the marriage between political parties and trade unions was not unique to Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew set in motion an evolution in labour relations that has not been emulated in any other jurisdiction. With workers’ basic rights secured over the years, a pragmatic instead of adversarial approach to the labour movement began in earnest.

The world saw a stable economic environment attractive enough for direct investment even if some naysayers saw the emasculation of labour unions. Illegal strikes were stamped out decisively.

In 1980, The Singapore Airlines Pilot’s Association (SIAPA) bore the brunt of a particularly combative Prime Minister who was never going to stand for any industrial action that would have damaged the country’s — and therefore the rank and file’s — fortunes. SIAPA was disbanded and the expatriate pilots who instigated the action were convicted.

For me, that puts paid to any notion that employers favour expats to the detriment of locals. The video clip of Lee Kuan Yew recounting his confrontation of SIAPA is one of my favourite.

But that was not when the politics-labour marriage diverged from the western model, where rank and file was and still is used to foment dissent against government. Lee had realised this right from the start – and in a speech to the employees of the Singapore Traction Company in 1959, he said, “A new phase has opened in the history of Singapore and with it comes a new phase in the trade union movement in which trade union leaders of stature must response to the needs not only of their own union members but of the community and people as a whole”.

And in a 1962 NTUC rally, he established that, “The task of the trade union movement is not just to get more wages and better conditions of service, however important this may be to recruitment and membership. Unless the movement also accepts it wider responsibilities to increase productivity and efficiency, no solid progress is possible.”

The trade unions here, under the NTUC is a completely different animal from the model that purely fights the employer for workers’ rights. It may be one that keeps getting brickbats about being ‘toothless’ from disgruntled workers because of the lack of confrontation, but it is a model that has seen unparalleled progress for this small island nation state we call home.

But importantly, in our context, it is one cog in the wheel that includes the government, the employer and the worker. It is a wheel that needs constant oiling and tweaking to keep in motion, and one which was put in motion by that giant of a union advocate.

Vale, Lee Kuan Yew

Today we begin to bid farewell to a giant of history. Tributes will flow and flood, and many among us will think about how much of us is due to him.

Lee Kuan Yew

Today we begin to bid farewell to a giant of history. Tributes will flow and flood, and many of us will think about how much of us is due to him.

I think his wish would have been that we keep looking forward with what we have been given, and forge ahead with what we have been made capable of. Good job, and goodbye Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And now, Onward Singapore, Majulah Singapura.

My Father And The Gangster Fella Lee Kuan Yew

I remember the story my father told me about the time he was a clerk in a bus company in Singapore. It was some time in the 1950s, and some of us will recall that these were troubled times.

I didn’t get much detail from the many times my father told and retold the story with much mirth and in gutteral Hainanese-accented English. But it always went something like this:

“I was working in the bus company lah, as an accounts clerk, keeping the books. Then one day this man came and kicked the door open like a gangster. He walked to my table and banged the table and shouted at me: Show me your books!

My manager said to me, ‘Young Mr Lee, please show the books to senior Mr Lee’.”

Wah, like a hooligan, the fella. I was scared. So I just show him the books, and he shouted here and there and I just followed his instructions”.

The fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee that he spoke about was Lee Kuan Yew, who was then a lawyer from Laycock & Ong, and was representing several trade and students’ unions.

The time that my father recounted might have been the one where the labour union movement and politics became indelibly intertwined – something which you could say is still the status quo, and something to which you might react by saying, “Ah, see lah! This NTUC is Gahmen what! How to help you?”

But before you kowpeh further about how Singapore is Uniquely like that, you may want to know that the same kind of history is shared with the Labour Party of the UK, the Australian Labor Party and many other countries where labour organisations have sought political representation.

The early history of the National Trades Union Congress makes for some exciting reading, but critics of the Government will quickly point out that the NTUC was forged from some iron-fisted politicking, as illustrated by Operation Coldstore.

Following the decade of unrest and violence which culminated in the Hock Lee Bus riots which left 4 people dead and crippled the city’s transport system, the Government enacted the Industrial Relations (Amendments) Act of 1968, severely limiting workers’ rights to strike.

Where did this leave the NTUC with its close ties to the ruling party? In its own words, it adopted a “cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers”.

This was crucial in the infancy of the newly independent country, and I along with many of my peers, know that it was this basic set up of cooperation which paved the way for direct foreign investment.

International companies started setting up factories in the newly cleared Jurong marshes, branch offices in the Robinson Road/Cecil Street/D’Almeida Street areas. And when I was old enough to listen to my father’s story of his encounter with Lee Kuan Yew, it was the 1970s, and we were on the cusp of this fantastic economic boom that propelled us past the rest of our Asian neighbours bar Japan.

This would not have been possible if the trade unions maintained an adversarial approach then. But you’d be right to point out that that’s just history, and you’d be right to ask how relevant the NTUC is in present climes. I’ll be helping you look for the answer.

Meantime, please enjoy this clip of the fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee not mincing words about some recalcitrant striking pilots.

Yahoo! Blog Post: Polling Day reflections

I have never seen the likes of it — people actually caring enough about Singapore politics to talk about it non-stop. I swear if I took a cab today, the driver might just go, “Ok, sir, do you mind if I just take you to your destination and not talk about politics during your ride?”…

Read more at Yahoo!