Is our union & Manpower Minister protecting our working class?

by Joseph Nathan

For younger Singaporeans, many may wonder who or what National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is all about. They see it almost everywhere, from childcare to supermarket, from training centres to hawker centres, and yet despite its local dominance, it was never successful venturing out of Singapore or definitive in what it is really about.

In 1961, when the then Singapore Trade Union Congress “STUC” backed the PAP politically, it split into two factions – NTUC, which is pro-PAP and the Singapore Association of Trade Union “SATU”. When the leaders of SATU were arrested by the government in the controversial Operation Coldstore in 1963, NTUC went on to become the only trade union in Singapore till present day.

The NTUC was soon drawn into a major controversy in its early years when Phey Yew Kok, who joined them in 1964 and rose rapidly to become their President in 1970, and later as its Chairman, was implicated in 34 corruption charges amounting to S$450,000. These include misappropriation of funds when he was the general secretary of Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation “SILO”. Phey was finally charged some 35 years later in 2016 and sentenced to 60 months jail term.

He remains a very controversial figure till this day as Tan Wah Piow, a student activist from the 70s, and his fellow classmates had persistently alleged that it was Phey who had fabricated the whole riot in the union office of the Singapore Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union in 1974 and that they were not even present at the scene of the incident. They had even cited Phey’s questionable character and his lack of integrity then as a factor but to no avail.

Unlike the present-day NTUC, SILO was generally well-liked by many Singaporeans then as the quality and prices of its basic essential goods were fair & reasonable. Alas, probably due to this “Phey-controversy” or in their need to move forward, SILO was soon “re-organized” and its existence vanished from the memories of many Singaporeans. The present day NTUC was never as consistent as SILO in affording fair prices or as well-liked by Singaporeans who see NTUC as just another commercial entity.

Trade unions were the bedrock of workers’ representation in Singapore after the WWII as many of these migrants were illiterate, isolated from their families or faced severe hunger that they were savagely exploited by unscrupulous employers, secret societies and labour syndicates. Even students were actively involved in their own student unions to fight for their rights and that of their communities and country. If those students were to be unfairly out-placed in polytechnic or universities by foreign students as experienced by our children over these past years, they would have protested rather than languish helplessly.

This begets several questions: is NTUC still a union that is relevant to Singaporeans?

Why is NTUC still afforded so much concessions and privileges if it is operating like a commercial entity? What is its real value proposition to Singapore and Singaporeans? Who are its real shareholders or who are they accountable to? Why are so many of our politicians and political activists still “employed” or have their CV polished up with appointments in NTUC? Will NTUC undermine the collective goods of Singapore? If it is so dynamic, why hasn’t NTUC made any real expansion outside of Singapore to help contribute to our economy and create really exceptional jobs for Singaporeans?

It is imperative to be asking these relevant questions about NTUC as Singapore search for its economic future amidst a more challenging global environment. If NTUC is a union, it ought to be non political and stand on the side of its key stakeholders – the workers or today’s working class. It cannot be in a conflict of interest as political power will always triumph and that means workers will ultimately be the losers. If it is political, where is the real union representation for the workers or our working class? The Hard Truth is that NTUC cannot serve two masters at any one time.

At the enterprising level, if NTUC is a commercial entity, afforded with concessions & privileges, how can we promote local entrepreneurship or create real entrepreneurship when most of the opportunities are swallowed up by this single mammoth-elephant? Take the case of our hawker centres. If NTUC is the manager of almost all of these centres, who or where can the workers or hawkers seek help whenever they encounter unfair employment or trade practices created by NTUC? Isn’t our workers and hawkers representation severely compromised by such conflict of interest?

Isn’t it better to direct such concessions & privileges directly to our entrepreneurs in the private sector so that they could at least use them to build truly competitive enterprises that can regionalize, be pro-Singaporeans in employment and help contribute to our economy? So why then or on what basis was NTUC allowed to monopolize our hawker centres if it cannot regionalize or add real value for Singaporeans and our economy?

In the space of entrepreneurship, not all of them can be globally or regionally exceptional but some of them can still do exceptionally well locally. Shouldn’t our government be putting in place restraints to curb NTUC and some of our GLCs, in sectors such as training centre, childcare or hawker centres, and give these opportunities to our local entrepreneurs or unemployed graduates?

Then the many government grants such as SkillsFuture, Workfare etc would be objectively meaningful and not be seen as unproductive transfers to these government-related entities. We can then truly increase the overall value proposition of our SMEs. Isn’t this a much more effective and sustainable option in encouraging entrepreneurship?

In the age of share-economy, many Singaporeans who are out-placed by foreigners from good paying jobs suffered a double-whammy when they are forced to accept very controversial contracts with many of these foreign start-ups just to put food on the table for their families. It is heart-breaking when they are continuously exploited right in our homeland by such unfair trade & employment practices. Where is NTUC or MOM in all these? Is one waiting for the other to act? Our trade union and MOM must move ahead of the curve and not be languishing behind when fellow-Singaporeans are being exploited almost mercilessly by these profit-centred entities.

Take the case of the existing India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement “CECA” for example. This FTA literally opens the floodgate to the unrestraint flow of Indian professionals into our employment market to replace our own professionals. Over time, many cases of their “fake” qualification & expertises, and bad social-behaviours are beginning to surface, further compounding the issue, and in turn, eroded the Singapore brand.

As in any country, it is the duty of the government to protect the employment of good-paying jobs for its citizens, and no amount of economic trade-offs can ever be justifiable. Where is NTUC in advocating a fair-practices on behalf of working Singaporeans? Why are we trading away the time-tested DNA of our working class? What would foreign investors think about us – that our working class is not worth protecting?

It is not just about the lost of good-paying jobs to foreigners or being against foreign talent. It is about how it distorts the real market cost of goods & services, rapture our collective talent development and breeds corruptions.

Such unrestrained inflow of foreign talents will naturally organize themselves along their respective nationalities. Once they had taken control of the HR department or any critical department, that particular nationality will begin to hire only their own nationality, supported by their “friendly” employment agencies. Are we blind to “kickbacks” or monetary transactions taking place among some of these interests groups?

In turn, these entities will become less competitive in real economic terms. In simple business terms, it means we are trading away the time-tested DNA of our workforce that had made us uniquely trustworthy. Once real competition heats up, many of these entities will collapse as they are divided internally and lack the real competency or focus in creating good job prospect, processes and comparative advantages for our organisations. Would any real talent join such a dysfunctional-organisation?

When that day comes, many of these foreign talents and their related service-providers would simply uproot themselves, cash out their CPF if they are PRs and move to “greener pastures” and start all over again. What would our government be expected to do then? Be nice to Singaporeans when our economy, public services, critical installations and key organisations are all messed up, just like they do at every election year?

Why are we still signing these Free-Trade-Agreements (FTAs) blindly? Is our government being penny wise but pound foolish in seeking “quick-fix” or short-term gain from the income generated by foreign worker levies and their existence-income without realizing the final cost we have to pay when these unsustainable “economic-miracles” vaporizes into a one big mirage?

Singaporeans are people with pride as we have been working hard, really hard, for the sake of our children’s future. This DNA is what makes Singapore uniquely great, and for us to be able to grow from a third world into a developed nation over a short period of time. To continue to do well, we just need good leaders as we have the rest – a proven workforce, critical infrastructure, assets and resources.

Singaporeans do have valid reasons to be concerned about the real capability and competency of our 4G leaders. How well do they truly understand how the world economy really works when they have not much real working experience since many of them are literally “manufactured” with shinning CVs, and do they even know how to balance or calibrate our socio-economic needs with our reserves, but instead, were quick in lavishing it on themselves and their related entities.

Just like our 4G leaders, it is time that we look deeper into NTUC and demand greater accountability from its past concessions & privileges, and ensure that sufficient safeguards are put in place to separate its politics from our economic and social spaces. It cannot be both a union and an employer at the same time.

NTUC is a political entity and it should have the professional ethic to be explicit about it. Then, it can continue to openly employ all the political leaders or activists who may otherwise be non-viable economically in the real world, as part of their CSR. Singapore truly needs a non-political union for the working class and it is time to review this needs strategically.

To depend on our 4G leaders to do what is right is like wishing upon a star. Like many others, I no longer have the patience to put up with their echo-chambering of ill-conceived government policies or their lack of workable solutions. If they still think they are right or that they are the best, let them dream on. But this is our country. As patriotic Singaporeans, we cannot afford to “fantasize” like them but have to think hard about what is the best way forward for our country, our children and ensure that there is indeed a tomorrow.

Just as citizens need representation in government and have the democratic-option to elect their representatives, the same is true for our working class – they need to have the democratic-option to elect their own representatives too. NTUC cannot serve two masters. The Hard Truth is that our working class do not have real union representation or protection and are being exploited.

When we realize that our working class is made up of our children, family members, relatives, loved ones, neighbours, friends, ex-schoolmates, religious-congregations, social groups, associates etc, can we remain silent in good conscience?

It is time for Singaporeans to wake up and start addressing this issue critically.Why? Simply because Singaporeans deserve better…