National Trades Union Congress
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was established on 6 September 1961, with Mahmud Awang as the pro-tem chairman and C. V. Devan Nair its first secretary-general.1 The labour movement initially represented only a minority of unionised workers. Its membership, however, expanded quickly; by 1965, it was representing the majority of the organised workers in Singapore.2 In 1969, in view of the rapid industrialisation and economic development that were to take place in Singapore the following decade, the NTUC transformed its role from a bargaining institution into a social entity with an unequivocal stake in the country’s economy and which seeks to improve workers’ well-being through a range of means.3 As laid out in its constitution, the NTUC’s key objectives include improving working conditions and enhancing the economic and social status of workers, as well as the promotion of good industrial relations for the benefit of workers, employers and the economy.4
Background and establishment
The Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC) was established on 13 June 1951 with the endorsement of the colonial government. It was intended to be an umbrella organisation for the trade unions previously associated with the communist-linked Singapore Federation of Trade Unions – which had gone underground at the time – in an effort to draw them away from the communists.5
In July 1961, a split in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) caused a corresponding fissure in the STUC because many leaders of the labour movement were also members of the PAP, and the STUC was dissolved later in the same month.6 The unionists who supported the group that broke from the PAP, the Barisan Sosialis, formed the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) under left-wing leaders; pro-PAP unionists, led by PAP members Nair and Mahmud and with the party’s support, established the NTUC on 6 September 1961.7 Upon its formation, the NTUC saw only 12 unions aligned with it, while more than 80 joined SATU.8
At the time of its establishment and in the immediate years following Singapore’s independence, the objectives of the NTUC were to achieve full employment in Singapore and to build a strong, responsible labour movement.9 The policy of the NTUC to help workers obtain better wages or conditions of work centred on a “realistic and pragmatic” approach. This involved negotiating collective agreements and fighting cases in the Industrial Arbitration Court, which was established in 1960, instead of calling for strikes.10
In early October 1963, SATU called for a two-day strike of 100,000 workers to protest against the government’s move to deregister seven of its biggest unions on the basis that they did not serve trade union objectives and posed a threat to the state’s security due to their alleged involvement in pro-communist activities.11 Subsequently, many of SATU’s affiliates crossed over to join the NTUC.12 In November 1963, the government rejected SATU’s application for registration, thus the association was rendered illegal.13 On the other hand, the NTUC was officially registered as a national trade union centre on 8 January 1964.14
From 1962 up to Singapore’s independence in 1965, NTUC membership expanded considerably as more workers saw that strikes did not improve their lives but cost them their livelihoods. At the same time, with SATU having become an illegal entity, more unions turned to the NTUC.15 By 1965, the NTUC was representing the majority of the organised workers in Singapore.16
Modernisation of the labour movement
With Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 and, two years later, the announcement of the withdrawal of the British military base from the city-state by 1971, the government adopted an industrial policy focused on attracting foreign investments to overcome the issue of unemployment. In line with the economic policies, two labour legislations were introduced in 1968 to make Singapore more attractive to foreign investors:17 the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, which prohibited trade unions from making demands in areas such as workforce deployment, promotions and dismissal and the Employment Act, which reduced employers’ costs by limiting employee benefits such as bonuses and retrenchment benefits.18 With the introduction of these legislations, the unions’ scope as a bargaining entity was reduced.19 The NTUC supported the new legislations. Following the changes in labour law, there was disenchantment among the rank-and-file, and the NTUC saw a decline in its membership – the number of NTUC members fell from around 110,000 in 1965 to below 90,000 in 1969.20
As a response, the NTUC organised a four-day seminar from 16 to 19 November 1969 with the aim of reinvigorating the labour movement.21 Titled Modernisation of the Labour Movement, a key outcome of the seminar was the labour movement’s overhaul from being a bargaining institution to becoming a nation-building entity with a stake in Singapore’s economy through building up a strong labour force. The NTUC was to serve the working population in different ways, such as by upgrading the skills of workers and the establishment of cooperatives.22 Another key change that resulted from the seminar was the promotion of tripartism involving the government, management and labour, so as to achieve higher productivity and stronger economic growth.23 This represented a fundamental shift from a confrontational stance to a cooperative approach in employer–employee relations.24
Social enterprises, amenities and skills upgrading initiatives
As a follow-up to the 1969 seminar, the NTUC began to establish cooperatives in the 1970s to combat profiteering and to provide affordable goods and services for workers.25 First established was the insurance cooperative NTUC INCOME (Insurance Co-operative Commonwealth Enterprise Limited) in September 1970, which aims “to make insurance accessible, affordable and sustainable for all”. Value, not profit, is maximised for customers.26 This was followed by transport cooperative NTUC COMFORT (Co-operative Commonwealth for Transport Limited) in November 1970, which was established to provide legal employment to reduce the number of pirate taxi drivers prevalent at the time.27 The latter has since evolved to become a full-fledged land transport company with international operations.28 The current supermarket cum convenience store chain, NTUC FairPrice (initially known as NTUC Welcome), opened its first supermarket in July 1973 in Toa Payoh.29 A social enterprise, FairPrice has kept the cost of living affordable for ordinary workers by offering basic necessities at lower, stable prices.30 The FairPrice currently has a network of some 126 supermarkets.31
The NTUC’s current network of over 10 social enterprises also provides a range of other goods and services at affordable prices. These include healthcare (NTUC Health), childcare and education (NTUC First Campus), cooked food (NTUC Foodfare), private-property development (NTUC Choice Homes) and recreation (NTUC Club).32
The NTUC has established a range of amenities to meet the workers’ recreational needs.33 In May 1981, the first purpose-built NTUC workers’ centre was opened in Queenstown, providing social, recreational and educational facilities for workers and their families.34 This was followed by a second centre in May 1983 in Jurong.35
In December 1986, the NTUC Club was set up as the NTUC’s leisure and entertainment arm.36 The NTUC Pasir Ris Resort was officially opened on 29 October 1988, and has since expanded to become the present Downtown East, which comprises a resort, water park and entertainment centre.37 Other recreation venues operated by the NTUC Club include Marina Bay Golf Course, Orchid Bowl and eXplorerkid (indoor children’s playground).38
Skills upgrading programmes and institutes
To enhance the employability of workers in Singapore, the NTUC launched the Basic Education for Skills Training (BEST) programme in February 1982, which is aimed at workers without secondary education.39 In December 1996, the NTUC initiated the Skills Redevelopment Programme to help workers transit to new jobs and new sectors.40
On 1 September 1990, the NTUC established the Singapore Institute of Labour Studies (renamed Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute in 2002), the only labour college in Singapore.41 Officially launched on 1 February 2008, the e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) provides assistance to job seekers through training and job placements.42
Restructuring of unions
On 15 March 1980, Nair, who was NTUC’s president at the time, appointed a task force headed by then NTUC Secretary General Lim Chee Onn to restructure the trade unions along industry lines.43 The reconstitution was said to allow unions to better identify with workers’ specific needs and thus served to attract more workers to join the unions.44 By April 1982, Singapore’s two largest omnibus unions, the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO) and Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union (PIEU), were restructured into nine industry unions and four house unions (house union membership comprises workers in a particular company).45
Besides industry unions and house unions, the NTUC also established the General Branch (GB) in 1992 to enable members to remain in the labour movement during a period of unemployment or after moving from a unionised to a non-unionised organisation. With the formation of the GB, new members may also join the NTUC any time to enjoy membership privileges such as NTUC FairPrice rebates and access to NTUC Club facilities. While the industry and house unions represent members in wage negotiations and workplace issues, GB members do not have such representation rights.46
Symbiotic ties between NTUC and the PAP government
Since its formation in 1961, the NTUC has been closely associated with the ruling PAP government.47 In June 1980, an arrangement was introduced to institutionalise NTUC’s symbiotic relationship with the PAP government. The arrangement entailed the participation of NTUC’s secretary-general in cabinet meetings, as well as the formation of a special liaison committee comprising members from the PAP and NTUC. On 15 September 1980, then NTUC Secretary General Lim Chee Onn was appointed minister without portfolio in the government, and many NTUC leaders are also PAP members of parliament.48 With the close link between the NTUC and the PAP government, the state cares for the interests of the labour movement, and the NTUC in turn considers the impact of its policies on Singapore’s economy.49
The NTUC did not have an office when it was formed in 1961. Some three years later, it set up its first office on Queen Street. Officially opened on 15 October 1965, the Trade Union House on Shenton Way was NTUC’s headquarters for 35 years until August 2000, when it shifted to a building formerly owned by the Post Office Savings Bank on Bras Basah Road. The NTUC’s headquarters is presently housed at the NTUC Centre at One Marina Boulevard. It was officially opened by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 1 May 2004.50
NTUC’s secretaries-general over the years51
1961–1965: C. V. Devan Nair (secretary of pro-tem committee in 1961, general secretary in 1962, and secretary-general from 1963 to 1965)
1965–1966: Steve Nayagan
1966–1967: Ho See Beng
1967–1970: Seah Mui Kok
1970–1979: C. V. Devan Nair
1979–1983: Lim Chee Onn
1983–1993: Ong Teng Cheong
1993–2006: Lim Boon Heng
2007–2015: Lim Swee Say
2015–: Chan Chun Sing
6 Sep 1961: NTUC is formed.52
15 Oct 1965: NTUC’s headquarters at the Trade Union House is officially opened.53
16–19 Nov 1969: Landmark seminar, Modernisation of the Labour Movement, is held.54
Sep 1970: NTUC’s first co-operative, NTUC INCOME, is launched.55
15 Mar 1980: Task force appointed to restructure the trade unions along industry lines.56
1 Sep 1990: Singapore Institute of Labour Studies (renamed Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute in 2002) is established.57
Feb 1992: NTUC leaders endorse the establishment of a General Branch.58
1 May 2004: NTUC’s headquarters at One Marina Boulevard is officially opened.59
Sep 2007: NTUC receives its 500,000th member.60
1 Feb 2008: e2i is officially opened.61
2011: NTUC celebrates its 50th anniversary.62
29 Aug 2012: NTUC receives its 700,000th member.63
1. S. R. Nathan and Timothy Auger, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2011), 228 (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 NAT-HIS]); Ee Boon Lee and Leong Ching, U & Me: Fifty Years of the Labour Movement in Singapore (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 2011), 36 (Call no. RSING 331.88095957 EE); National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, Step By Step (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, n.d.), 14.
2. V. R. Balakrishna, A Brief History of the Singapore Trade Union Movement (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 1976), 6. (Call no. RSING 331.88095957 BAL)
3. Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 11; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 43.
4. “Constitution of the National Trades Union Congress,” National Trades Union Congress, n.d., 1.
5. Singapore Institute of Labour Studies, One Voice, One Vision: A Pictorial/Oral History of the National Trades Union Congress (1961–1991) (Singapore: Institute of Labour Studies, 1991), 20 (Call no. RSING 331.88095957 ONE); Chew Soon Beng, Trade Unionism in Singapore (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 31–32. (Call no. RSING 331.8095957 CHE); Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 3–4; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 18.
6. “Byrne to Dissolve the TUC,” Straits Times, 26 July 1961, 16 (From NewspaperSG); Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 6.
7. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 33; “‘Role of Unions’ – NTUC,” Straits Times, 9 September 1961, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Ee and Leong, U & Me, 28.
8. Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 6; Nathan and Auger, Unexpected Journey, 232–3.
9. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 61.
10. Singapore Institute of Labour Studies, One Voice, One Vision, 20; “Gamba Opens State’s First Industrial Court under New Law,” Singapore Free Press, 24 October 1960, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Jackie Sam and Roderick Pestana, “SATU Calls Strike,” Straits Times, 8 October 1963, 1; “Govt. Says ‘No’ to Satu Bid for Federation,” Straits Times, 14 November 1963, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Lim-Ng Bee Eng, Chronology of Trade Union Development in Singapore 1940–1985 (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 1987), 17. (Call no. RSING 331.88095957 CHR)
12. “Exodus Begins: 50 Branches Quit SATU,” Straits Times, 18 October 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Satu Bid for Federation.”
14. “NTUC Enters a New Phase,” Straits Times, 10 January 1964, 11 (From NewspaperSG); Ee and Leong, U & Me, 36.
15. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 42; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 32; “Exodus Begins.”
16. Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 6.
17. Singapore Institute of Labour Studies, One Voice, One Vision, 20; Bilveer Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore: An Introduction (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 104–5 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 SIN); Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 33–34.
18. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 105; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 15; “Right to Work past 55...,” Straits Times, 1 August 1968, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “History of NTUC: 1960s,” National Trades Union Congress, accessed 2010.
20. National Trades Union Congress, “History of NTUC”; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 43.
21. “Unions to Map Out New Strategy to Check Slide,” Straits Times, 15 November 1969, 28; “‘Do-or-Die’ NTUC Seminar Gets Warning from Devan,” Straits Times, November 1969, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Ee and Leong, U & Me, 43.
22. “Unions to Map Out New Strategy”; Balakrishna, Singapore Trade Union Movement, 11; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 43.
23. Raj Vasil, Governing Singapore: Democracy and National Development (N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 67. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 VAS)
24. Singapore Institute of Labour Studies, One Voice, One Vision, 30.
25. “History of NTUC: 1970s,” National Trades Union Congress, accessed 2010; “Organisation Structure: Social Enterprises,” National Trades Union Congress, accessed 2 February 2015; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 55.
26. “INCOME to Start Business on Tuesday,” Straits Times, 11 September 1970, 7; “NTUC to Bosses: Start INCOME ‘Check Off’,” Straits Times, 22 November 1970, 9 (From NewspaperSG); “About Us,” NTUC Income, n.d.
27. “Transport Co-op Is Launched,” Straits Times, 19 November 1970, 2; Tan Wee Lian, “Taxi Licences for NTUC Only?” Straits Times, 6 January 1971, 8; “Act of Faith in Workers Justified, Says Lee,” Straits Times, 13 March 1973, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “About Us,” ComfortDelGro, n.d.
29. “About Us,” NTUC FairPrice, accessed 2015; “NTUC Supermarket to Be Called WELCOME,” Straits Times, 21 November 1972, 2; “Hundreds Will Watch the PM Open NTUC Supermarket,” Straits Times, 22 July 1973, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 59.
31. “Store Locator,” NTUC FairPrice, accessed 2015.
32. National Trades Union Congress, “Social Enterprises.”
33. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 107.
34. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 79.
35. Lim-Ng, Chronology of Trade Union Development, 38.
36. “About,” NTUC Club, accessed 2015.
37. Yeo Kim Seng, “Workers’ Resort That Can Match the Best,” Straits Times, 29 October 1988, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
38. NTUC Club, “About”; “Explorerkid,” NTUC Club, accessed 2015.
39. “Chance for 620,000 to Learn New Skills,” Straits Times, 4 February 1982, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Ee and Leong, U & Me, 80.
40. Geraldine Yeo, “New Plan to Train Older, Less Educated Workers,” Straits Times, 21 December 1996, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Ee and Leong, U & Me, 109, 122.
41. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 109; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 16; “About Us,” OTC Leadership Labour Institute, n.d.
42. “Budget Boost to Funding for Adult Worker Training,” Business Times, 2 February 2008, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 109.
43. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 51.
44. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 44.
45. George Joseph, “Omnibus Unions to Go in 18 Months,” Straits Times, 16 March 1980, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 42, 51; Ee and Leong, U & Me, 16; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 16.
46. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 44, 114; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 17.
47. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 63.
48. Vasil, Governing Singapore, 67; Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 63.
49. Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 63.
50. “NTUC Buildings,” National Trades Union Congress, 2010; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 24.
51. National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 14; National Trades Union Congress, U & Me: Celebrating 50 Years of the Labour Movement 1961–2011 (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 2011), 7 (Call no. RDIST 331.88095957 YOU-[LKY]); “Devan Nair's Resignation from the NTUC Accepted,” Straits Times, 29 November 1965, 8 (From NewspaperSG); “Lim Swee Say Resigns from Labour Movement, Chan Chun Sing to Succeed Him,” Channel NewsAsia, 8 April 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
52. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 28.
53. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 46.
54. “Unions to Map Out New Strategy to Check Slide,” Straits Times, 15 November 1969, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
55. “INCOME to Start Business on Tuesday,” Straits Times, 11 September 1970, 7 (From NewspaperSG); National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 15.
56. Joseph, “Omnibus Unions to Go in 18 Months”; Chew, Trade Unionism in Singapore, 51.
57. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 109; National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 16.
58. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 114.
59. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 148.
60. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 155.
61. National Trades Union Congress, Little By Little, 26.
62. Ee and Leong, U & Me, 161.
63. National Trades Union Congress, “700,000 Strong Now, Revving Up to One Million Members by 2015,” press release, 30 August 2012.
Chris Leggett, “Trade Unions in Singapore,” in Trade Unions in Asia: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, ed. John Benson and Ying Zhu (New York: Routledge, 2008), 102–20. (Call no. RSING 331.88095 TRA)
Ee Boon Lee, Stretching the Dollar (Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 2001). (Call no. RSING 334.5095957 EE)
National Trades Union Congress, Tower of Strength: One Marina Boulevard (Singapore: NTUC Media Cooperative Limited for the NTUC, 2004). (Call no. RSING q331.88095957 TOW)
The information in this article is valid as of 2016 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.