Much has been said about the late founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s role in nation-building and transforming Singapore from third world to first under his stewardship. There’s no denying that he is a formidable leader who will be remembered and studied for generations in history books and texts.
Love him or hate him, it is likely you respect him still for all he has achieved.
For those who are conflicted on forming an opinion on Mr. Lee, here’s an excellent quote from the man himself in an interview with The New York Times on Sept 1, 2010, which I find most meaningful:
“Let me give you a Chinese proverb: ‘Do not judge a man until you’ve closed his coffin.’ Do not judge a man. Close the coffin, then decide. Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me… The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth? I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”
Other than being a dynamic leader, many people associate Mr. Lee with being an eloquent lawyer with strong oratory skills as well as being a stern, no-nonsense politician who gets things done. His early involvement as an unionist in his younger days tend to be overlooked at times, but is just as important when we discuss his achievements and contributions to Singapore’s nation-building.
In the current day social landscape, people tend to see the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) as a toothless institution, as much of the olden days strikes and labour unrests vapourised. In actual fact, the relationship between employer, workers and the union is now working so well in the background that we tend to take the peace for granted. The recent SMRT China bus drivers strike reminds us of how fragile this relationship can be and the disruptions it can cause to society when the tripartite relationship breaks down. A lot of work goes on behind-the-scene which we do not see and the foundation for all these were laid by Mr. Lee.
Upon returning from his overseas studies, the young Mr. Lee joined law firm, Laycock & Ong, together with wife, the late Mrs. Lee, with Mr. Lee taking up litigation.
A supporter of the downtrodden and the underclassed, Mr. Lee took on many cases for unions and workers, sometimes at nominal fees. From the beginning of his career, Mr. Lee understood the importance and power of the unions.
One of the first union cases Mr Lee fought was for postal workers in Singapore. In 1952, the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union had sought Mr Lee for help, as they were about to go on strike and needed advice and someone to draft their press statements and negotiate their settlements.
“This decision to represent the postmen was to be a turning point in the history of the trade unions and constitutional mass action. Little did I know that I would be guiding union leaders in a strike that in two weeks changed the political climate.” Shared Mr. Lee in retrospect.
Back in 1959 when Mr. Lee first led the PAP to elections victory, taking over the government and getting appointed as the Prime Minister, there were many union leaders within the PAP leadership and one of the basis which Mr. Lee won on was the promise of a pro-labour government. True to his word, a series of legislative measures was adopted to ensure that workers get fair wages and decent working conditions at the workplace.
“It put the colonial government on the defensive and encouraged workers’ militancy. The press exposure and publicity enhanced my professional reputation. I was no longer just a brash young lawyer back from Cambridge with academic honours. I had led striking workers, spoken up for them and was trusted by them,” added Mr. Lee.
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was formed in 1961 after the PAP was split into Barisan Socialis and PAP. As the PAP was formed by trade unions then, the trade union movement also split into 2 factions, the larger pro Barisan Socialis Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) with about 80 unions, and the pro PAP NTUC, with less than 20 unions.
The PAP-NTUC alliance focused on job creation and improving wages while the pro-communist Barisan-SATU group focused on strikes to push for a change in government.
Over time, the PAP-NTUC alliance proved successful and the relationship evolved into a consultative partnership where the PAP-formed Government, NTUC and its affiliated unions, and employers come together to resolve issues concerning workers and wages.
It is also for this reason that the top man in the labour movement is invited to sit in the Cabinet so that workers’ inputs are given at the point policies are crafted. This is definitely much more superior than if the policies were implemented and workers can only take to the streets to riot as there is no other option.
“From the time he fought alongside the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union for better pay and terms, he has always had the welfare and interests of workers at heart and in mind. As the co-founder of the PAP, he forged a strong symbiotic relationship with the NTUC. As the first Prime Minister of Singapore, he championed a strong spirit of tripartism, bringing labour, management and government together,” said NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say and NTUC president Diana Chia in a joint statement from the NTUC.
The creation of a society where there is industrial peace with justice, where there is social mobility, and where the fruit of labour is shared equitably were important themes in Lee’s government. These principles still apply to this day for the current government.
I don’t think there is another other labour movement quite like how it is run in Singapore. This unique union is part of the legacy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, thanks to his early involvement as an “original unionist”.