“The danger of an eventual disappearance of organised labour as a significant social force is very real. A race has already started for the Labour Movement in Singapore – a race between modernisation and extinction.”
~ C.V. Devan Nair, Adviser to NTUC and Director, NTUC Research Unit, November 1969
From 16 to 19 November 1969, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) held its Trade Union Seminar on “Modernization of the Labour Movement” at the Singapore Conference Hall. It was for union leaders to take a hard look at the Labour Movement and find positive ways to become a significant social institution, centred around serving our workers with a variety of services, rather than being just a bargaining institution.
ReUnion – Celebrating our past. Inspiring our future
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this landmark seminar, NTUC is presenting an exhibition – ReUnion, at the National Museum of Singapore from 4 July to 10 November 2019. The exhibition was officially opened on 4 July 2019 by our Guest-of-Honour, President Halimah Yacob, who had spent 33 years with the Labour Movement helping workers.
The official opening was hosted by Ms Mary Liew, NTUC President and Mr Ng Chee Meng, NTUC Secretary-General. In attendance were Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower; Dr Robert Yap, Singapore National Employers Federation President; and more than 110 guests, comprising union leaders and tripartite representatives.
Themed “Celebrating our past. Inspiring our future.”, ReUnion will enable visitors to explore 50 years of the Labour Movement’s modernisation journey through stories, memorabilia and experiences. There is also a future booth to inspire visitors to reflect on the things that matter most for their future. Through the exhibition, we want to foster a better understanding of our Labour Movement’s role in nation building and our continuous push for better wages, welfare and work prospects for our workers.
On display are several artefacts, including two watches belonging to the late Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. Both watches were presented by the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers after Mr Lee successfully represented them in an arbitration case over a wage dispute and secured 28 months’ back pay for nearly 1,000 clerks in 1953. More details of the watches can be found in Annex A.
NTUC’s Trade Union Seminar on “Modernization of the Labour Movement”
"It is the consciousness of our being co-owners of the new society we are creating that provides the drive for fulfilment. In multiracial countries like ours, trade unions have a special role in building up this spirit of camaraderie amongst the workers. Developing the economy, increasing productivity, increasing returns, these make sense only when fair play and fair shares make it worth everyone's while to put in his share of effort for group survival and group prosperity."
~ Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister, 16 November 1969
Prior to 1969, strikes and work stoppages were prevalent and industrial relations were mostly non-existent in Singapore. Singapore gained independence unexpectedly in 1965 with the British pulling out of its troops from Singapore in 1967. This affected 21,000 jobs in a time of uncertainties. Furthermore, the Employment Act and Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act were passed in 1968, which affected the unions’ roles, leading to a decline in union membership.
To address unions’ concerns over these developments, NTUC held the four-day Trade Union Seminar on “Modernization of the Labour Movement” for union leaders to soul-search and reinvigorate NTUC, which was then regarded as having entered a state of decline due to falling membership and disenchantment among the rank-and-file. See Annex B.
Many deemed the seminar a watershed moment for the Labour Movement because the unions decided on a new approach for labour in Singapore – from confrontation to cooperation at the workplace and to play a broader socio-economic role in the society. Union leaders made several key recommendations then and two stood out and continued to be relevant to our workers and Singapore today – the central principle of tripartism in Singapore's industrial relations; and the creation of NTUC co-operatives (now known as NTUC Social Enterprises), which continue to serve the social needs of Singaporeans. See Annex C.
“The labour movement has decided to take a positive role in the development of the Republic’s economy. It will cease to be a narrow, sectional pressure group whose interests and advancement are to be promoted at the expense of others. On the contrary, the labour movement has now recognised that it is only when there is growth and prosperity in the Republic that its members can get the improvements they want. Further, the movement has also recognised that it has a positive contribution to make to economic growth.”
~ Dr Goh Keng Swee, Minister for Finance, March 1970
50 years on from the landmark seminar, our Labour Movement invites workers, tripartite partners and Singaporeans to join us at the exhibition to look back, celebrate and be inspired by five decades of endeavours, struggles and achievements of Singapore’s Labour Movement.
Looking forward, 2019 will set the stage for NTUC to deliberate and chart its transformational journey to further enable our workers, economy and nation to stay competitive.
Acknowledging this, Secretary-General Ng said, “Our pioneers have shown us the way before. When faced with tumultuous challenges, we had to grit our teeth, do what was needed and each time, we bounced back stronger and made lives better. The tripartite spirit we have today is unique – a secret sauce as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once described, secret not as in people do not know but secret in that people know and yet cannot replicate. We must continue to preserve the spirit of our pioneers and infuse it with our ever innovating, modernising spirit to help our workers and our nation. This endeavour will never end because we are a small country and international winds will always affect us, whichever way they blow. But as we have done many times before, we will prevail.”