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.