atans1

NTUC: What Devan Nair got wrong

In Political governance on 11/04/2014 at 5:49 am

The NTUC has a clown cabinet minister and its own MPs within the PAP. The last time it approved of a strike was decades ago (2 Jan 1986). The PAP govt frowns on strikes, and NTUC has to be constructive, and nation-building, like the local media. The PAP govt knows best leh.

Once upon a time the PAP was strike friendly. In 1960 125,000 man-hours were lost in strikes compared with only 26.000 in 1959. The person who reported this statistic, the outgoing head of the S’pore Chamber of Commerce called for an inquiry into where the trade union movement was leading S’pore.

Woodhull, a union man (Singapore Trades Union Congress) and a PAP cadre and activist (later arrested in Coldstore) said in the 6 months before the PAP took power in 1959, the workers were “repressed”. So the jump in strikes was to be expected when they were liberated. (Singapore Correspondent. Political Dispatches from Singapore (1958-1962)*

Well the PAP soon grew less-strike friendly as the economy was affected by strikes and an economic slowdown.

LKY and the other PAP leaders (remember he was only first among equals) decided to form a new trade union movement. National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was created in 1961 when the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), which had backed the People’s Action Party (PAP), split into the NTUC and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). In 1963, the government detained SATU’s leaders during Operation Coldstore and deregistered it.

Only NTUC was left standing: competition eliminated. It never had to persuade the workers that its plans were better.

Devan Nair as a founder of the NTUC and as its first Sec-Gen had a different idea of the role of unions from the one of union leaders in the S’pore of the 1950s: one where the govt, unions and businessmen collaborated for the public good, and where general economic prosperity benefited the employers and their workers.

He (and other PAP leaders) publicly said that they had in mind the German model of industrial relations: “The most notable of such experiments have been by the Staedtler, Carl Zeiss, Robert Bosch, Gert Spindler and Rexroth businesses in West Germany, and the John Lewis and Scott-Bader enterprises in England.” The last two were British worker co-operatives. John Lewis is still a model for the co-operative way of doing things.

They hated the traditional British model despite (perhaps because) many of the leaders having studied there, and despite the English-educated leaders having influenced by British socialist thinkers, the Fabian Society and the British Labour party. Devan Nair (not one of the UK educated leaders) quoting a British writer, Mr. Folkert Wilken, on the subject:

“It is an inveterate evil of the traditional structure of trade unions, that in order to exist they must struggle to recruit members, and to make membership appear in the most attractive light. They are therefore under constant compulsion to prove the necessity of their existence. They have to institute periodic and militant proceedings for increased wages and shorter hours. By doing this, they are appealing to the egotistic interests of the workers. Thus, they never appeal to the social ideals dormant in the workers. They cannot, for they do not consider it their duty to further such ideals, and have no clear picture of the practical realisation of these ideals. They therefore wish to persevere in their war for higher wages and less work. To these aims they owed their birth, a hundred years ago. But then, those aims were justified by the conditions of the time, as they are always justified when there is capitalistic exploitation of labour.”

The virus of the British industrial disease is also latent in Singapore** and could develop a malignant potency in future years, if our social thinkers and planners do not give thought to the development of corrective and remedial measures.

(http://sgrepository.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/wages-alone/)

Funnily for an ex-communist, he never ever mentioned (at least publicly: I’m happy to stand corrected on this point) that the NTUC was modeled on the Soviet Union’s and Communist China’s trade unions’ movements (Just like one LKY kept insisting that the PAP was modeled on the Roman Catholic Church when in fact it was modeled on the Soviet communist party and the Chinese communist party that imitated its structure. The ideas and principles of both organisations followed those of Lenin, even though Lenin got the idea of his structure from the Catholic Church.). The unions were subordinate to the leaders of the communist party who were also the leaders of the govt, the countries being one party states.  They were not equal partners to the govt or the employers (state-owned). This didn’t matter because the communist party represented the interests of the workers, the proletariat.

Devan Nair wanted to improve the working conditions and life of the workers, but he was willingly to use a model that had shown itself capable of exploiting the workers; a system that depended on the whims and fancies of the political leader, there being no institutional checks to their power. No need to have checks and balances because the party and hence its leaders represented the workers.

I’m sure that such a smart man (in EQ and IQ) would have realised the danger especially as he was a well read man (his speeches seem to indicate this, or did he have a good speech writer?). But as he tot the world of LKY***, he created (with others) the NTUC based on the Leninist model.

As I pointed out earlier, by 1973, he may have recognised the problems S’pore was going to face if it continued on the PAP govt’s chosen trajectory, but he was impotent to change the system. He had helped create a union movement that was subordinate to the ruling govt in a defacto one-party state. The NTUC would improve the life of the the workers only if the govt wanted to take care of the workers. If it didn’t, the NTUC would not be in a position to help the workers. It would only spin the govt’s propaganda, like Squealer in Animal Farm, explaining why the other farm animals had to endure hardship.

When in the mid 1990s, the govt realised that S’pore was losing its competitive edge (a fact, not a Hard Truth or Heart Truth) and it tot that economic growth required real wages to be held down and real estate prices to be inflated**** the workers had to accept the nasty consequences. The NTUC was part of the machinery of govt. As to protesting, well sheep S’poreans don’t protest: they juz bleat*****. Besides, S’poreans are law abiding and protests (Hong Leong excepted) and strikes need official permission.

NTUC, as a champion of the workers, was flawed from its conception, a bit like the creature that Dr Frankenstein created. For that, Devan Nair, whatever his good intentions, must accept part of the blame.

One wonders whether when Lim Chin Seong and Fong Swee Suan, Woodhull  and other radical left unionists met Devan Nair in the afterlife, they chorused,”Dr Frankenstein, we presume?”?

—–

*(http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/mai/new-book-singapore-correspondent/)

by Leon Comber MAI Adjunct Research Fellow

Publisher:  Marshall Cavendish International Asia

Singapore Correspondent Book CoverSingapore Correspondent” covers five years of Singapore’s colourful political past – a period of living turbulently and sometimes dangerously. It is a collection of eye-witness dispatches, sent from Singapore to London, spanning a time when Singapore was emerging from British colonial rule and moving forward to self-government and independence. Many of the early struggles of the People’s Action Party (PAP) are described as the focus is on the political struggle taking place in which the PAP played a major part. Many important events which have long been forgotten are brought to life. These dispatches prove that political history need not be dull, and indeed can sometimes be entertaining and lively.

Reviewed here: https://atans1.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/im-invested-in-spore-spore-in-50s-60s/

**Bit ironical this given that PAP activists were in the forefront of the strikes.

***It is important to appreciate, however, that Lee Kuan Yew and Co. belong to a freak generation. In fact, as individuals, they were quite unrepresentative of the great majority of their social class, the members of which were brought up and educated in the colonial era, and whose major preoccupation was to fend for themselves and feather their own nests … But because the present generation of leaders exceeded their class characteristics and loyalties, and developed a creative vision of a better society, they were able to establish themselves as the modern leaders of Singapore. In more senses than one, this freak generation are the creators of the vibrant and bustling Republic we know today.

https://atans1.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/in-1973-devan-nair-foresaw-todays-income-inequality/

****OK, OK, I exaggerate. But go ask Mah Bow Tan.

*****They always have. It’s juz that the internet and social media have amplified the once soft bleats. Take away the anonymity of the internet and social media and there will be a return to the silence of the lambs.

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  1. Sorry to have to correct you. LKY and his colleagues did not decide to form a new trade union movement. The trade unions came under the umbrella of the Trades Union Congress. LKY, in order to take control of workers’ unions, de-registered the TUC. The so-called Middle Road unions, led by Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, et.al. decide to form a new group with the name of Singapore Trades Union Congress. This was turned down by the Registrar of Societies. The group then decided on the name Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU – an appropriate name since it meant “one or together” in Malay.) At the inaugural meeting of SATU, Lim Chin Siong et.al were elected to the interim executive committee whose members were detained soon thereafter. Devan Nair, together with G.Kandasamy and Jamit Singh, backed by the PAP, then formed the New Trades Union Congress.( A kind of replay of this scenario in Malaysia when the UMNO was deregistered as a result of the High Court order, with the attempted registration of New UMNO.) NTUC received an annual grant of some $400,000 for at least 20 years thereafter and the Conference Hall at Shenton Way was built for it.

  2. And I might add, this beginning is the source of the oft-repeated statement (coined by that wordsmith, Devan Nair) of the “symbiotic ties” the NTUC had with the PAP Government.

  3. Sorry to intrude again but your piece provokes a rush of memories. The idea of co-operatives is definitely not Devan Nair’s. It was Dr. Goh Keng Swee’s idea. He was enamoured of workers’ co-operatives as operated in the UK. Specifically he was full of praise for the chaim of workers’ resorts called Butlins and publicly promoted the idea of copying them.

    • I don’t think one can say whose idea it was definitively. All English-educated socialists would have been exposed to the ideas of British thinkers. BTW, I don’t think Butlins was a co-operative. It was a biz owned by Butlins. Dr Goh liked the idea of a holiday camp. So did the Reds. They set up peoples’ palaces in Crimea.

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