Singapore Association of Trade Unions

After the split in the People’s Action Party (PAP) that led to its left wing setting up the Barisan Socialis, the Singapore Trades Union Congress (TUC) also split into two rival factions: the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).1 In the years following the split, SATU and several of its member unions were found to have engaged in activities that were inconsistent with their objectives and rules as well as prejudicial to law and order in Singapore.As a result, some of the unions were deregistered and SATU itself was refused registration.3 This resulted in an exodus of SATU union branches to NTUC.4

In July 1961, the leftists in the PAP broke away to form the Barisan Socialis. The division was accompanied by a split in the leadership of the TUC.5 On 25 July, Minister for Labour and Law Kenneth Byrne dissolved the TUC at the request of its secretary-general, G Kandasamy.6 Following the disestablishment of the TUC, its president, Inche Mahmud bin Awang and Kandasamy went on to form the “non-Communist Socialist” Trade Union Centre, which became the NTUC,while Lim Chin Siong formed SATU, applying for its registration with the government on 16 August.8

As SATU was a conglomerate of unions, a working committee for the communist unions was formed to manage the latter. Initially, the working committee comprised only representatives of the various federations of trade unions deregistered by the government in May 1960, but it was later expanded to include leaders of other unions not involved in the 1960 deregistration.9

From August 1961 onwards, there was an increase in the frequency and severity of labour strikes with 77 of the 116 strikes occurring from August to December with 39,153 workers involved in those 77 strikes. By contrast, in 1960, there had been 45 strikes for the entire year with only 5,939 workers involved.10 

In late August 1963, seven SATU unions were served notices by the Registrar of Trade Unions for displaying anti-Malaysia banners and placards during a mass rally on 25 August 1963. They were asked to justify why they should not be deregistered for participating in what was regarded as communist united front activities.11 Although there were some protests against the notices, attention was focused on the upcoming election on 21 September 1963, which the PAP won against the Barisan at the polls.12

On 3 October 1963, SATU held a protest meeting to condemn and demand the withdrawal of the dissolution order against the seven unions.13 On 7 October, SATU called for an island-wide strike.14 Hours before the strike, the police arrested SATU's president, S.T. Bani, and many other officials and declared the strike illegal. Many SATU unions decided to distance themselves from the strike and issued statements condemning it.15 The strike died out within hours on the first day as SATU officials called it off.16

On 30 October 1963, the seven unions were deregistered for engaging in activities that were inconsistent with their objectives and rules.17 To prevent members of the deregistered unions from joining NTUC, they were instructed to join other unions under SATU’s umbrella.18

On 14 November 1963, SATU was refused registration by the Registrar of Trade Unions, who stated that it had been used for “unlawful purposes and purposes inconsistent with its objects and rules”.19 To woo SATU’s member unions, the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers Union (SMMWU), an affiliate of NTUC, mounted an aggressive campaign. By end November, 74 branches from the deregistered SATU unions had joined SMMWU.20


Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

1. Chew Soon Beng, Trade Unionism in Singapore (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 33. (Call no. RSING 331.8095957 CHE)

2. Lim-Ng Bee Eng, Chronology of Trade Union Development in Singapore 1940–1985 (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 1986), 16–17. (Call no. RSING 331.88095957 CHR)
3. Lim-Ng, Chronology of Trade Union Development, 17.
4.  Lee Ting Hui, The Open United Front: The Communist Struggle in Singapore (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1996), 268. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 LEE-[HIS])
5. “PAP May Expel the Dissidents,” Straits Times, 25 July 1961, 1; A. Mahadeva, “PAP Dissidents Name New Party ‘Barisan Socialis’,” Straits Times, 30 July 1961, 4; “Now a Split in T.U.C.,” Straits Times, 18 July 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Byrne to Dissolve the T.U.C.,” Straits Times, 26 July 1961, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “14-Man Body Is Set Up to Form New Trade Union Centre,” Straits Times, 18 August 1961, 9; “Nair Leads Congress,” Straits Times, 8 September 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “SATU – The TUC Successor,” Straits Times, 17 August 1961, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Lee, Open United Front, 209.
10. Lee, Open United Front, 239.
11. Jackie Sam, “Move against 7 Unions: Registrar Tells Why,” Straits Times, 30 August 1963, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Lee, Open United Front, 266; Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 33.
13. Lee, Open United Front, 266, 267; Labour Dept., Singapore, Annual Report 1962/1963 (Singapore: Labour Dept., 1965), 168. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN)
14. Jackie Sam and Roderick Pestana, “SATU Calls Strike,” Straits Times, 8 October 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. R. Chandran, Cheah Boon Kheng and Bob Peries, “105 Firms Hit,” Straits Times, 9 October 1963, 1, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “’Strike’ That Failed,” Straits Times, 10 October 1963, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Lim-Ng, Chronology of Trade Union Development, 17.
18. Lee, Open United Front, 267.
19. “Gov’t Says ‘No’ to Satu Bid for Federation,” Straits Times, 14 November 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Lee, Open United Front, 268.

The information in this article is valid as at August 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



Labor unions--Singapore--History
Labour and employment