Why does NTUC and PAP have a symbiotic relationship?

ntuc pap

For the average Singaporean, the National Trades Union Congress (or NTUC) is more often associated with a supermarket and insurance, than being a congress of trade unions in Singapore.

Many also may not understand that NTUC has a symbiotic relationship with the People’s Action Party (or PAP), and how the symbiotic relationship benefits Singaporeans.

What is the National Trades Union Congress or NTUC?

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is a national confederation of trade unions as well as a network of professional associations and partners across all sectors in Singapore.

Its priority is to help workers improve wages, welfare and work prospects.

Who set up NTUC?

According to a website set up to explain the Labour Movement’s history, NTUC was formed in 1961:

“In May 1961, the proposal by Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to include Singapore in a larger federation led to a split within the PAP.

Thirteen PAP assemblymen were expelled, and together they formed the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) in July 1961 in opposition to their former comrades. This precipitated a split in the STUC as well.

The STUC was dissolved and two rival bodies were established – the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), led by the pro-Communists and who supported the Barisan Sosialis; and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) which continued to support the PAP.

SATU was by far the larger organisation with 82 unions, while NTUC had only 12 unions on its side.”

ntuc pap
Source: CoolerInsights

Why does a trades union congress work with a political party?

Labour Movements around the world lobby for better employment terms and benefits of workers via political parties (US via the Democrats, UK via the Labour Party).

Singapore is no different.

Labour Movements can choose different ways to lobby, such as:

  • adopting confrontational tactics of holding strikes to threaten employers and governments, or
  • choosing a collaborative strategy of working with employers and governments to grow the pie in order to have more to bargain for workers.

In Singapore, the histories of the NTUC and PAP are intertwined. Union leaders formed part of the original PAP, which then formed NTUC where unions could choose to affiliate to. Throughout the years, union leaders have been part of PAP to ensure workers’ voices are not forgotten.

NTUC chooses to work with a political party because this is where union leaders can lobby for workers at the highest level of policy decision-making, should the union leaders get elected to Parliament via the political party.

For example, NTUC has several unionists who have been elected to Parliament (as Labour MPs), who lobby for various worker groups.

Name of Labour MP Union, trade association or NTUC social enterprise Example of worker group or topic represented
Ng Chee Meng UWEEI All workers
Heng Chee How UWEEI Mature workers
Koh Poh Koon MIWU Training
Ang Hin Kee NTA, NPHVA Freelance and self-employed
Desmond Choo UTES Youth, families
Melvin Yong NTWU, UWEEI Transport, workplace health and safety
Patrick Tay SMMWU PMEs
Zainal Sapari BATU Low wage workers
Seah Kian Peng NTUC FairPrice Cost of living

With this route to Parliament via a political party, union leaders’ voices can be heard at Parliament and even within Cabinet, where the Secretary-General of NTUC also represents workers’ voices.

Are Labour MPs parachuted into leadership positions?

In Singapore, all union leader candidates seeking to be Labour MPs have to go through the general elections, where voters in the constituency they run for will vote for them (or not).

Name of Labour MP GRC or SMC
Ng Chee Meng Pasir Ris-Punggol
Heng Chee How Jalan Besar
Koh Poh Koon Ang Mo Kio
Ang Hin Kee Ang Mo Kio
Desmond Choo Tampines
Melvin Yong Tanjong Pagar
Patrick Tay West Coast
Zainal Sapari Pasir Ris-Punggol
Seah Kian Peng Marine Parade

Candidates who win the mandate of the voters get to represent them (and the workers they speak up for) in Parliament as Labour MPs.

Instead of wondering why the NTUC works with the PAP, think about this relationship as an avenue for union leaders to ensure workers’ voices are heard, in places where national decisions are being made.

Feature photo: ST

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