Singapore’s tripartite model of labour relations has underpinned three decades of success, but it must now contend with destabilising forces in the modern globalised economy. #1
The new political norm, the recent labour disputes and the large number of foreign workers has posted a life and death challenge to the tripartite partnership of union, employers and government. Will this partnership end like the Apartheid in South Africa in years to come?
The Apartheid can hold on for so long all because of the strong and authoritarian National Party of South Africa. Indirectly, it also received supports from the West in the beginning. However, the Apartheid cannot sustain when more and more people understand the reality, the true.
Apartheid (pronounced [ɐpɑːrtɦɛit]; lit. "aparthood") is an Afrikaans word for a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the National Party governments, who were the ruling party from 1948 to 1994, of South Africa, under which the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule was maintained. Literally defined, it means 'the status of being apart'. #2
There is a time limit for ‘being apart’. Just like the PAP, Just like the tripartite partnership. The tripartite partnership is a success model in the past and this is what the PAP government wants it to be. However, the government itself is not as solid as before (not as intelligent and total control as before). Can it still hold on the same position like the past? Can the tripartite partnership function as effectively as the past?
NTUC and SNEF
We all know who can become the chief of NTUC and perhaps same for SNEF.
The tripartite partnership is supposed to be an equal relationship. However, the NTUC and SNEF are over representing employees and employers in many ways. But with the government support, they are given equal partnership status but ‘the status of being apart’.
“Of the 1.16 million foreign workers here, only 11 per cent or 125,000 are unionised. In contrast, about 27 per cent or 560,000 of 2.08 million local workers are union members.” #3
The best NTUC can only claim that they are representing minority workforce in Singapore. Even Singapore workers, NTUC is only representing less than 30% of the workers. If you understand why 60% of the votes can translate into more than 90% of the parliament seats, you will understand this logic of representation better.
Comparatively, SNEF scores higher and it claims to cover 63% of workforce. But not to forget, SNEF is for the employers not for workers.
The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) has released its advisory on employee grievance handling. This follows the illegal strike by a group of bus drivers from China, employed by transport operator SMRT. In a statement, the federation said it has emailed the advisory to nearly 20,000 employers. Together, they cover nearly 2 million employees or 63 per cent of the Singapore workforce. #4
Control and Command of ‘being apart’
To maintain the Apartheid, the National Party needs the rules and regulations. Of course, a sustainable tripartite partnership also needs rules and regulations. One of them is the control on strike, for example the recent illegal strike of Chinese drivers at SMRT.
However, rules and regulations must be seen as fair and equal to all. The Apartheid has its legality and so it can be used to detain or even torture people. But it has its limitation, especially when more and more people do not agree with it.
Total control and power are tools that can be used to create ‘status of being apart’. This is why when Egypt’s 5-month old new President Morsi intends to give more power to himself, immediately there is a protest. This is because more and more people are aware of ‘being apart’ and the consequence.
Mr. Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt’s first elected president, portrayed his decree as an attempt to fulfill popular demands for justice and protect the transition to a constitutional democracy. But the unexpected breadth of the powers he seized raised immediate fears that he might become a new strongman. Seldom in history has a postrevolutionary leader amassed so much personal power only to relinquish it swiftly. #5
In the article ‘The Future of Tripartism in Singapore: Concertation or Dissonance?’, Soh Tze Min of Civil College Singapore points out the following possibilities:
In spite of its widely recognised benefits, the centralised tripartite model is fast becoming a rarity. Countries such as Australia, Ireland and the UK have turned from a centralised tripartite model to enterprise-based collective bargaining, characterised by growing numbers of disparate trade unions each competing for members, and contending with employers for employment benefits according to the particularistic interests of their members.#1
The article also highlights “The Challenges of Tripartism”:
Around the world, tripartism is waning: union membership is declining across Europe, Ireland, Netherlands and South Korea.13 Globalisation has skewed bargaining power in favour of businesses by expanding labour supply and increasing factor mobility, heightening conflicts between business and worker interests. With an open economy, Singapore is hardly immune to the destabilising forces of globalisation. Furthermore, changes in the social, economic and political environment are raising questions about the sustainability of tripartism in Singapore. #1
Soh also provides 3 scenarios: Tripartism Endangered, Tripartism Rejuvenated, and From Tripartite to Multipartite Relationship.
The best hope for the PAP is a Rejuvenated Tripartism. But this scenario will require the government ‘to play a greater role in balancing the interest between business and workers.’
To play a greater role for the government when more and more people are aware of the present working of tripartite partnership? Does it look like President Morsi giving more power to himself?