Home ‘Sweet’ Home?: State of Trade Unions in Singapore

Preamble

In late August 2016, I took my first long leave from Singapore and embarked on my University education in the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh. I had spent 15 years of my life in Singapore after having moved there with my family at the tender age of 4. It would be completely fair to say that upon my arrival in Edinburgh, and for the first few weeks, I found myself rather desperate (while covertly so) in creating and protecting the little Singaporean bubble I had constructed over the years.

Of course, it is not as if I had never been exposed to the outside world. Yet, as human experiences go, every aspect of a foreign country is more genuinely and vividly perceived if one finds himself/herself in the actual place. It is vastly different as having happened upon information on the Internet, read it on in the news or even, having met a person of the particular nationality in one’s own country. For this reason, it is a lofty and selfish dream of mine to one day travel and experience the entire world from within every distinct society.

Singapore is a predominantly Asian society that has successfully incorporated Western values and practices while preserving its many traditional cultures that stems from its multireligious and multiracial demography. It is praised by many outsiders as being a highly developed, almost miraculous economy with a peaceful society. While retaining much of my pride for the country that made me much of who I am, as well as for the ‘elitist’ school in which discourse had developed much of my opinions about the world, I could not help but few extremely alienated upon my return last summer. My experiences in Edinburgh had shaped me in manner that culminated in an inability to fill the mold I once used to. I felt like an outsider myself, with the only advantage in past experiences.

The way I viewed my own country had transformed.

 

Today’s Topic: Trade Unions

Trade Union Post.png

Upon deciding to take a joint degree in International Relations and International Law, it was much to my chagrin when I realise that Public Law of the UK and Scotland was a compulsory course for me to do that joint degree with the Edinburgh Law School. It came to a surprise to many of my peers when I voluntarily took its succeeding course, Public Law and Individual Rights, when it is purely optional for me this year. Well, I chose to the do the course because the 2nd half, focusing on “individual rights” was a study of the key provision in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and how they apply to the member states of the Council of Europe (CoE), specifically the UK and Scotland.

Many of these ECHR provisions struck me deeply and provoked a whole wave of criticism regarding how human rights is enforced back home in Singapore. While Article 10 on the freedom of expression and Article 8 on the right to respect for private and family life were the provisions I had the most reaction to (recall, for example, the Amos Yee case), today, I shall focus on Article 11.

Article 11 ECHR is titled ‘Freedom of assembly and association’ and reads:

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

  1. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”

 

The State of Trade Unions in Singapore

At the GCSE ‘A’ Levels, I took H2 Economics and I remember distinctly being ‘force-fed’ the belief that Singapore, having a single trade union that was essentially controlled by the government or government-affiliated bodies, was a good thing. I questioned it then, of course, but now, the situation seems even more ridiculous to me.

What is the purpose of a trade union?

In English sociologists, economists, socialists, labour historians and social reformers (what a list of accomplishments!) Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s assert in their work,‘History of Trade Unionism’ (1920) that the most common purpose of trade unions is “maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment”. This would include negotiating wages, work regulations, implementing complaint procedures, proposing rules that regulate the hiring, firing and promotion of workers, ensuring workplace safety, etc.

In other words, trade unions are supposed to fight for the rights of workers. In some ways, we can draw a similarity to courts.

As early as 1651, Thomas Hobbes published ‘Leviathan’, his most prominent work which goes on to forming the basis of political thought and philosophy. In fact, last year, for all Politics and International Relations students, we had to take a course on Political Thinkers in which Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ was our first reading. In Chapter 15, he sets out the laws of nature and I note the 17th and 18th law of nature.

17 law of nature

18 law of nature

What is my point here? Impartiality. A court needs to be perceived to be impartial to be effective in making unbiased decisions, and thus, needs to be separate from the government. Political realities may differ, but that is the doctrine of the separation of powers. Similarly, trade unions need also be independent of the government in order to represent accurately the needs of the workers they represent.

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC)

NTUC is Singapore’s sole national trade union centre in Singapore. Yes, you heard me right. The SOLE trade union centre. It may be made up of 58 affiliated trade unions, 2 affiliated trade associations, 10 social enterprises, etc. etc. but that does not really matter, does it? From the very fact than in economics, we study NTUC as a singular body relinquishes the voices of these separate bodies under one ‘Leviathan’.

I have read many articles arguing for the effectiveness of trade unions in Singapore. Their arguments may seem well and good, but all one has to do is open their eyes. Open your eyes to reality and you see that, in Singapore, wage changes seem to happen out of the blue. Furthermore, as part of our ‘A’ level syllabus – that one ultimate examination you take at the end of your pre-University education –  H2 Economics has a portion that teaches us about how NTUC, as a trade union, because of the influence the government has over it, is counterproductive in raising wages. We are taught that the NTUC is one of the main factors why Singapore continues to be successful in creating economic growth.

NTUC and Economic Growth

For anyone who has studied Economics, you would know that economic growth has 2 dimensions – potential and actual growth. On the supply-side of policies, the most effective policies are those that seek to increase productivity, which results in both short-term (actual) and long-term (potential) growth. Yes, we are taught about retraining and educating workers, allowing for them to be more skilled and more qualitatively productive, but what is the other side to this?

We are also taught that productivity is maximised when the increase in wage per man hour remains lower than the productivity per man hour. Translated into layman speech, this means that Singapore has a policy where, in order to maximise productivity and keep our economy flourishing, workers have to work harder and harder, and for longer hours, for wages that increase less than how much they work. This is where trade unions are supposed to come in and seek a balance between economic growth and worker’s rights.

Why is it then, that in the ‘A’ Level syllabus, we are shocking taught that our sole trade union, NTUC, actually enforces this clear exploitation of workers?

Set Up more Trade Unions

Don’t make me laugh. NTUC exists as a Leviathan. The very fact that it is a conglomeration of various trade unions means that any new trade union is bound to be eaten up by NTUC. The culture of ‘comply or we will force you to comply’ is strong here. If 1 trade union is created with an idealistic vision of aiding workers, they are very easily swept by the other trade unions that are already part of the system, that easily outweigh them.

 

How Did Studying Article 11 ECHR Affect My Opinions?

Yes, I’ve always seen that there is a problem with trade unions in Singapore, but how did studying public law further exacerbate that frustration?

Strikes and Constructivism

In his ‘8 myths about trade unions and union activities in Singapore’, Tay Leong Tan states that stories about strikes in other countries are ‘politically romantic’. Reading that article had me chuckling in disbelief. Clearly, constructivism is not a school of political thought subscribed to here.

What does constructivism claim? Primarily, it claims that politics and the society itself is very much shaped by discourse. This discourse happens at different levels and revolves around different subjects depending on the subschools found in constructivism. Feminism is a discourse about gender. Populism is a discourse about social divide. Constructivism is a neutral theory, focused on observation and explanation, but is very powerful because of this characteristic. Take Brexit, for example. How did immigration, as a concern among the electorate, come to take precedence over the economy?

In May 2016, 33% of voters placed the ‘the impact on Britain’s economy’ as the most important issue in the EU referendum, while 28% stated ‘the number of immigrants coming into Britain’ as the most important issue. Just a month later, the numbers reversed. Why was this so? Discourse, political discourse. Immigration was a topic that was found in every conversation regarding the Brexit referendum. The fear of immigrants was entrenched by conservation.

The US elections saw a similar effect of conversation – what was focused on in debates between Hillary Clinton and now President Trump, and the conversations on the ground, played a huge role in the actual results.

How is this relevant? Strikes do not happen in a vacuum, neither are they necessary violent. What strikes are useful for is bringing an issue to the forefront of discussion within the society. It is not limited to those who participate in strikes, but those who witness it, discuss it and spread it further to others. Strikes are a way in which issues that are silenced by those in power are brought to the attention of the people that are affected or know people who will be affected.

This is why Article 11 protects the right to strikes, limiting it only when there is a legitimate aim and when prescribed by law, and even then, only proportionally (3-tiered test for qualified rights). The very fact that the Singapore government prohibits strikes or assembly in any kind, especially that of a political, religious or racial nature, prevents the kind of conversation that is required for the public to play a bigger role in the country’s political development. It is also a prime reason why so many Singaporeans are uninterested in politics – how can they be if they do not feel involved? It is ridiculous that Singaporeans can feel as if politics is something that is not their business when decisions made by politicians affect their everyday lives. This is the kind of domino effect that can take place when the right of groups to assemble and protest are shut down.

 

Conclusion

Unlike my previous post, I will refrain from ranting anymore.

The problem is 2-fold. Trade unions cannot be formed easily, even if there is no legislation prohibiting it. This is the result of the nature of NTUC existing as some form of Leviathan that eats up and effectively relinquishes the autonomy of any new trade unions. Secondly, strikes and assembly of groups to protest, in generally, is illegal in Singapore, unless permission is sought. How ridiculous. The ECHR may allow for a certain margin of appreciation for its contracting states such that these states can restrict strikes and the assembly of groups depending on their interpretation of a legitimate aim and arguments for proportionality. The fact that, in Singapore, protests happen once in a blue moon, points to how much that right to assemble and protest has been restricted. If you were to place Singapore under the obligations of the ECHR, I would say that Article 11 is definitely violated.

Given that I see the ECHR as the current epitome of human rights law, should its provisions not be the standard that all developed nations should strive towards?

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