Speech by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew Guest-of-Honour at NTUC's 50th Anniversary Dinner, Marina Bay Sands Grand Ballroom, on Friday, 13 May 2011
I began my political life by representing trade unions. I was a young legal assistant at the firm of Laycock & Ong, and the postmen were about to go on strike. I was asked to look after them. They went on strike. For two weeks, the union ding-donged in the press against the Commissioner for Posts representing the Colonial government on the merits of their case. I drafted their statements. Public sentiments swung towards the unions, and the Colonial government had to give way: higher wages and better terms and conditions of service, removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants. Because the union won, I was next briefed by the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs for their demands, which went to arbitration. Again the union won.
Thereafter, I became adviser to innumerable trade unions English-speaking, Chinese-speaking and Malay-speaking. When I fought my first election in 1955, I chose Tanjong Pagar because that was where the postmen were based and also the dock workers. I won easily.
I have maintained my relationship with the unions and, as Prime Minister, I have always been mindful of the interests of the workers and their unions. Hence, we were able to develop the tripartite relationship and the National Wages Council with the advice of Dr Albert Winsemius, the Dutch Adviser the UNDP sent to help us. On his own, he came back year after year because he approved of, and was attracted by our practical approach to problems.
Today, I am happy to join you to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of NTUC. NTUC nearly lost to SATU (Singapore Association of Trade Unions), then communist-led. They were mainly the Chinese-speaking trade unions. Fortunately, they lost or the history of Singapore would be changed for the worse.
In government, I have never forgotten that it is in the interest of the workers and their unions that we must strive for growth and development. In other words, growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers, shared not only directly in wage increases but indirectly in better homes, better schools, better hospitals, better playing fields and, generally, a healthier environment for families to bring up their children. I am glad that since I stood down as Prime Minister, successive Prime Ministers, first PM Goh Chok Tong, now PM Lee Hsien Loong, both had the same policies - pro-worker, pro-trade unions. We changed the attitude of antagonism by employees towards their employers to one of fair bargaining and accounts of employers open for inspection. This led to cooperation in the National Wages Council with the government, unions and employers. This is a unique system which has served us well. It has stopped unions from being adversaries to squeeze employers out of business. Instead, they have teamed up with the government and employers in a tripartite system which has brought benefits to workers, the government and employers because industrial peace creates confidence and increases foreign investments. Whenever employers make above average rates of return on capital, profits are shared.
From the early 1980s, we put trade union leaders on key statutory boards so that they will understand and shape the policies of the boards. It is especially valuable for our public organisations to have the voice of the unionists on public policies. They were our channels for feedback and helped refine our policies. It made union leaders take ownership of these policies, so they mobilised their fellow unionists and their workers to make them successful. Since 1980, unionists also played a key role in the productivity movement. They decided on enlarging the pie rather than fight for a bigger slice of a small pie.
The most significant transformation of the trade union movement was the Modernisation Seminar in 1969. It was proposed by the late Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee. The late President Devan Nair, then Secretary-General of the NTUC, jointly organised it. The Modernisation Seminar extended the activities of the unions to embrace the economic, social and recreational life of the workers. NTUC set up co-operatives. The first was NTUC Income, offering low-income workers affordable insurance coverage. Then NTUC Comfort, enabling unlicensed taxi drivers to become owners of taxis and get a decent living. In 1973, NTUC Welcome, now known as NTUC Fairprice, put a cap on private sector businesses as to how high they can mark up their prices. Other cooperatives were subsequently set up for NTUC Childcare, Choice Homes, ElderCare, Foodfare, Healthcare, Income, Media and Thrift & Loan. Trade union leaders were in charge of running these cooperatives. This gave NTUC leaders personal experience as managers, and hence better understood the problems of management. Because they were co-operatives, their prices were lower than that of ordinary businesses, and helped workers save money.
Our trade union leaders and their members have been agents of change. Unlike the old British and European trade unions, they accepted new technology and new ways of working. They helped workers overcome the risk of unemployment due to the increasing use of computers and other new technologies. Together with the government, they set up computer appreciation classes for the workers. As a result, workers did not fear becoming redundant because of computers or have their pay reduced. Instead, the training in the use of computers helped the workers increase their productivity and wages. Together with the government, the unions also set up BEST classes to improve the command of the English language of our workers. Then they also ran a range of courses for different skills.
I am honoured to be your Guest-of-Honour this evening. We all remember the close relationships between the NTUC, the trade unions and the government.
I wish you many more years of active work for the workers and their unions, working with the government and the employers on equal terms. You have helped to create jobs and upgrade skills for our workers to live a better life in the first 50 years of the Labour Movement. Your challenge now is keep up with the fast pace of economic transformation, and help our workers - young and old, professionals and rank-and-file - to secure better jobs, better pays and live a better life for many more years to come.