Modernizing the Labour Movement: Voices from the Past


The Trade Union Seminar on the “Modernization of the Labour Movement” lasted four days from 16 to 19 November 1969. What transpired over those days set in motion many events, plans and a renewed vigour to bring change to workers and Singapore through a transformed Labour Movement.

Major Media Coverage

In a front page article about the Seminar that appeared in the 1969 December issue of Perjuangan headlined “The giant steps forward”, it was said that “never before in this part of the world did trade unionists gather together, to take a hard look at themselves collectively, and then come up unanimously with well thought out conclusions, which, when implemented, will give them a brand new robust trade union movement comparable to the best in the world, complete with a streamlined strong Centre and the co-operative social institutions to make it economically viable.”

The article went on to state that the Seminar received meticulously built up publicity – the Straits Times put out an eight-page supplement on the opening day, the Eastern Sun 5 pages, the Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau 4 pages each. The radio and TV “gave excellent coverage to the pre-Seminar build up… and the Seminar itself for almost a week.”

Who Said What and Why?

But how do we make sense of what exactly took place back then? One way would be to revisit what was written in the 10 working papers submitted to the Seminar. These were then read out by various high-profile individuals over the course of the Seminar.

Lee Kuan Yew

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had this to say about the content of the various papers: “I am struck by the buoyant and confident note they all exuded.”

Then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee congratulated “particularly those who produced the excellent series of study papers, on facing up to the challenge of the times squarely and not ducking the issues.”

If you chance to come across those papers, you’ll realise the words used to create stories, analogies, imageries and arguments would have truly belonged to that era and mood. Against the backdrop of a newly developing nation and a people who were finding their footing in a brave new world, the carefully crafted arguments carried a spirit that was at once daring and bold.

The Original Voices

Here are some examples we have lifted to rekindle that mood of November 1969.

In his opening address titled “The Harsh Realities of Today”, Lee Kuan Yew spoke of what a World Bank team had to say about Singapore.

“In July this year [1969], a team from the World Bank came to assess our economic position. They reported in October that ‘in 1968 Singapore entered a new phase of accelerated growth with boom conditions in private investment, a decline in unemployment, buoyancy of government revenues, the emergence of an overall surplus of savings over investments, and a significant build-up of external reserves.”

And this is where the audience must have sat up and listened more intently.

“They attributed ‘the greater than expected success in Singapore’s drive towards industrialization’ to four factors. They placed the Employment Act as the second of the factors. Legislation can prohibit and punish abuses and malpractices. But it cannot give that positive urge to work and to achieve. This urge can come only from the conviction of a people that they must, and want to give of their best. It is the consciousness of our being co-owners of the new society we are creating that provides the drive for fulfilment.”

Getting Unstuck

In his address, C.V. Devan Nair made a strong call for the Labour Movement to change, saying that “for by and large we have become stuck in the grooves or our own making.”

“We have not bothered to develop beyond and above the status of merely bargaining institutions. We have chosen to be spectators, instead of active participants, in the major social and technological changes which are taking place all round us.

“We choose only to be present at the distribution of the social cake, but are conspicuous by our absence at the many stages of its preparation. A modernized labour movement in a modernized society is much more than a bargaining institution,” he added.

His 7-page speech concluded on the note that the “success of the seminar will depend on the extent to which the organisers are able to impress on the participants the three powers and capacities that alone can effect, in their conjunction, the great task of transformation to which we are committed: the capacity for self-exceeding; the power of vision and of projection into the future, and; adaptability to changing conditions, and an effectuating will to realise the practical programmes of modernization put up for our consideration at the seminar.”

The Birth of Tripartism

Lee Kuan Yew

Then Minister for Labour and Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam also spoke of tripartism or the coming together of various parties to ensure Singapore’s and its people’s prosperity.

“I believe that modernization and rapid economic development can be put through in Singapore with the least sacrifice and least discomfort if the operation is undertaken as a joint effort by Government, enterpreneurs and workers.

“This means that all three must make modernization and economic development their common objective and overriding consideration. This is not to deny conflict of interests. But such conflicts will generally arise in regard to how the fruits of economic development should be divided.

“But there should be no conflict or disagreement over the need for rapid and sustained economic growth. No sectional demand or sectional conflict should be allowed to hamper the impetus to economic growth provided by recent measures and legislation initiated by the Government.”

Pioneers of Change

At the closing session of the Plenary, Seminar Chairman C.V. Devan Nair declared that the Modernization Seminar was going to be a turning point for the Labour Movement.

“The hopes of the organisers of this Seminar have, it seems to me, been more than realised. Such a Seminar would have been unthinkable five or ten years ago in the days of 50-cent trade unionism. For the first time in the history of the trade union movement in this Republic, and in this part of the world, trade unionists gathered together to discuss in a serious, sober and responsible way the past, the present and the future outlook of organized labour.

“As I remarked in one of the Workshops, it is only Scene I, Act 1 of the whole process of modernization. There are many more acts to go through and several more scenes to go before organised labour can claim that it has achieved the break through into the dimension of modernization,” he added.

He went on to say that something that would be true today, because the voices at the Seminar were indeed pioneers of change.

“If the labour movement emerges as a powerful, influential and modernized organisation in the years to come, all of us who have contributed to the Seminar here will go down in history as the pioneers of change, of the creators of a new era for organised labour, and that is a much more worthy distinction than to go down in history as merely a bunch of ineffective clowns, who achieved nothing more than to engage for the last three days in talking shop.”