9 Dec 2004

Does Singapore Have a Bona Fide Labour Union?


Mellanie Hewlitt
26 July 2003
Singapore Review

As I read Mr Tan Tarn How's article this morning in the 26 July 2003 issue of the Straits Times (attached at bottom), several thoughts flashed through my mind.

Until recently, the need for a strong labour union has been taken very much for granted. But with growing retrenchments and unsympathetic policy makers, the need for a bona fide union who will stand shoulder to shoulder with the worker is absolutely necessary.

In Singapore, the lack of bona fide union representation is all the more glaring given that this is not a welfare state and the state does not provide any relief for the unemployed. The government's clear message to the retrenched worker is not to look for free "hand-outs" (quoting the words of Straits Times writer Ms Chua Lee Hoong).

Does asking for a descent job qualify as a "hand-out". I think that the average
Singaporean only wishes to be given the opportunity to earn his keep, and it is not his fault that he has fallen victim to an imperfect system. (Pls see previous article "Job Market Imperfections? Live With It!!! in previous issue of Singapore Review, attached below)

And adding insult to injury, not only do policy makers remain unsympathetic to displaced workers, unemployed workers are also denied of their hard earned CPF salaries. If this is not the time to dip into hard earned savings,what is?

It is understandable that many workers are bitter and feel that Unions here are
government affiliated and will only make a 1/2 hearted attempt to fight for workers rights. Most often the measures are limited to retraining and job sourcing unlike real Labour Unions in France and South Korea who have little fear in going toe to toe with ministers and government on serious bread andbutter issues concerning employment and wage reforms.

But what do you expect when the unions in Singapore are largely run and managed directly or indirectly by officials who retain strong ties with the government (and ultimately employers).

In Singapore, so called "Labour Unions" like NTUC are seen as tools for the government to implement unpopular wage reforms. The relationship is a symbiotic one and therein lies the problem. There will come a time when the needs of the workers are at odds with government wage reforms and this is precisely the time when real labour unions come into play.

It is no strange coincidence that the NTUC chief has always been a PAP member and a member of cabinet. The dilemma that poses then is what happens if there is a conflict of interest between workers and cabinet/policy makers?

Unfortunately, public consensus here confirm that when push comes to shove,these pro-government unions will not be there in the darkest hour of need.

In short the pathetic state of labour union representation in Singapore is much like that of opposition politics. Whatever protests and representations allowed via official channels are merely cosmetic in nature, more so to show case to the world that individual rights are represented in form and on paper.

When thequestion is asked, the government can proudly respond and answer, "Yes, we have a labour union in existence here to represent workers rights and workers dohave a channel to make themselves heard."

And it is conceded that this is the truth on paper at least.

But peering beyond the veil, the real scene that greets the eyes is far from encouraging. It is an ominous reminder that here in totalitarian Singapore, the Government controls everything, and we mean everything literally.

In these difficult times, where there is a growing divide between the interests of workers and the interests of the Ruling Elite. The absence of real, tangible dissent in opposition politics and labour representation is both conspicuous and worrisome.

Events in recent weeks have emphasized the growing discord between the interest of the masses and those of the Ruling Elite. Singapore Review has been flooded by passionate letters endorsing release of CPF funds during these difficult times. Other issues which have attracted passionate response concern the NEL Fiasco (and repeated calls to open Baugkok station) as well as looming unanswered questions concerning ministerial salaries.

Cruel Irony Defined: A PAP Minister who takes home SGD100,000-SGD175,000 PER MONTH in tax dollars telling a worker (who earns SGD2,000 a month) to be "less choosy" and to work harder.

And unfortunately for the average Singaporean, the above scenario has been replayed over and over again like some defective recorder. After awhile, even a once intelligent mind becomes numb and accepts fiction over fact and form over substance.

This ridiculous situation exists only in Singapore as there is no real barrier(whether in the form of real Labour Union representation, or Opposition Representation) standing between PAP ministers and average individuals.

Is this a political system that is FOR THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE AND OF THE PEOPLE? One really wonders.


The merits of a One Party, One Government, and totalitarian dictatorship have long been questioned. The words of Kennedy strike home "POWER CORRUPTS AND ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY". The spirit of these words govern the Doctrine of Separation of Powers in a written constitution. One wonders in Singapore whether the constitution exists only in form and not in substance. As is often the case in Singapore, the spirit and original objective is often lost in a model system that looks good only on paper.


Agagooga said...

I wonder why so few people here leave comments *g*

soci said...

could be fear of being guilty by association, or completely un-interested in what I say, either way it can be interpretated to see Singaporeans in a positive or negative light. what do you think?

wandie said...

All of the above.

lickedbyflames said...

hey, maybe Singapore should try a *!moderate!* form of communism... 'Communism is a corruption of the dream of justice' - adlai stevenson.. who knows, 'done properly', it might just work!

yes, i don't know what i'm talking about. anyhow, mind if i link you up?

soci said...

thanks for linking.
As for trying communism, hasn't that experiment been tried?