Published in Greg Sheridan, editor, Living with Dragons. Australia Confronts Its Asian Destiny, Allen & Unwin in association with Mobil Oil Australia, St. Leonards [NSW], 1995, pp. 194-215.
Ask an Australian trade union leader what they think about the labour scene in Asia and, more likely than not, you will hear a story of a nascent movement under the thumb of authoritarian regimes. The common theme expressed is that Asian unions are weak, poorly organised, suppressed, struggling and often subservient. This picture is partly true but it masks the huge societal and economic changes now underway – as well as the many differences between the countries in the region. Nonetheless, given the situation in many Asian countries, it is legitimate to ask whether the union movement is the bud that will never flower.
This evocative question suggests a pessimistic outlook. Whatever the difficulties faced by the labour movement, it needs to be emphasised that the situation is not universally bleak. In Korea the union movement is now a strong force. In Japan and Singapore the unions have played and continue to play an economically and socially significant role. In the developing countries weaker unions are characteristic. But as time unfolds, as economies mature and industrialise and as societies become more prosperous, there is the possibility that new and revitalised union organisations may emerge.
This chapter will describe the union situation in various countries, document some comparative suggestions as to how the union movement has emerged and suggest why in most cases the unions are weak. In doing so, the issues of human rights, trade, labour market flexibility and the ‘Singapore model’ will be addressed – together with some Australian attitudes to such issues.
Types of Organisations
There is sometimes a tendency in Australian discussions about Asia to view the region as some amorphous mass rather than as a region of diversity and change. In fact there are few, if any, distinctively and uniquely ‘Asian’ characteristics.
No discussion about the labour movement can afford to ignore economic factors, including the debates about how to secure prosperity at different stages of economic development. Such debates are at the kernel of many Asian governments’ consideration of labour relations issues. For example, issues associated with distribution (so central to the labour movement’s raison d’etre) are frequently subordinated in these debates to the task of wealth creation.
Beyond the well-worn path of provocative, sweeping generalisations, are there common characteristics that might be described? How might the region’s unions be characterised? Unions in Asia, as alliances of workers organised to collectively advance common interests, began in urban centres where industry was concentrated. Sometimes plantation and mining workers organised themselves into unions. Socialist, Fabian and communist influences played a major role in motivating the activities of some of the leaders of the unions – especially in the early days. Government employment attracted a higher rate of unionisation than did the private sector.
One factor frequently overlooked is the fragile nature of many of the societies in Asia in (what was for most of them) the post-independence period after the Second World War. Consider certain of the Asian countries and their development. Nearly all of them were economic and political ‘basket cases’ by Western points of reference. In 1965 Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Union and it faced an immediate crisis when Great Britain decided to withdraw its substantial military presence a year later. (‘East of Suez’ was too far away for the British.) Malaysia was wracked by race conflicts in the 1960s and was at war with Indonesia in Borneo. Indonesia’s economy and society tottered dangerously during the ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ in 1965 – the year that saw an attempted coup by forces aligned to the Indonesian Communist Party – a failed insurrection which led to the emergence of General Suharto as strongman and head of state.
After the Second World War, much of Indo-China was plagued by civil war and insurrection. The Indo-Chinese country that had avoided much of the conflict in the 1950s and 1960s – Cambodia – eventually was sucked into the vortex; the murderous Khmer Rouge regime which came to power in 1975 killed millions of people. China was also beset by civil war from 1945 to 1949 and subsequently was swept by purges, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals. In the 1950s the Korean peninsular was beset by war and civil war followed by an icy cease-fire in 1952 which has lasted ever since. On Taiwan, the exiled Koumingtang regime set up a martial law dictatorship that constantly warned its people to beware of invasion from the People’s Republic of China. In Thailand, the upheavals were more modest; though fighting erupted to the north of the country with guerilla forces opposing the government. Thailand’s governmental structures became an international joke with various coups by sections of the armed forces. Burma from the 1950s retreated into isolation with a nationalist, socialist government eventually sharing power with the military elite.
Japan alone looked stable, with growing prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in that period its industrial relations record (including per capita days ‘lost’ through industrial unrest) was worse than Great Britain’s. The Philippines also looked stable and democratic but it too was subject to civil war in the southern part of Mindanao and with the Philippines Communist Party challenging the government for power, sometimes through assassination and other forms of terrorism. However, most of the challenges facing the Philippines were self-induced. Corruption in high and low places became endemic, especially during the rule of President Marcos.
This is no more than a sketch. But the image of instability, fragility and hopelessness is etched in the minds of many people in the West, including in Australia. It is as if the scenes of devastation in France, Germany and Italy after the Second World War continue today to be a relevant consideration. In some ways the analogy with wartime Europe and Europe’s subsequent recovery is useful. How time erases the painful parts of human memory! Jean Lacouture’s biography of Charles De Gaulle, for example, is a reminder of how fragile France was a decade and a half after victory and liberation. In 1962 there was a coup in Algeria by French generals. At that time Andre Malraux, minister in the government, warned a cheering crowd outside the Palais Bourbon that their vigilance would stop the same thing happening in France. Strong, prosperous and stable as France may seem in the mid-1990s, three decades ago it did not seem that this would be a certain thing.
A related observation can be made about Asian countries, many of whom are no longer fragile flowers. An American scholar, Tu Wei-Ming, claims something more sweeping about the East Asian countries:
…diversity in economic culture, together with inclusiveness in the political process, make Japan and the Four Mini Dragons [i.e., Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong] figure among the more dynamic and transforming regions in the world. The fact that, in comparison with Western Europe and North America, a non-Western and non-Protestant area has developed a less adversarial, less litigious, and less individualistic but equally, if not more, competitive market economy indicates that modernisation based on shared Confucian heritage can assume a distinctive East Asian, or, by implication, Chinese cultural form. It is worth noting that, with ethnic homogeneity, family stability, national commitment to education, and respect for authority, industrial East Asia and, to a certain extent, Communist East Asia as well, are not today confronted with racial tension, drugs, crime, lack of child care and deterioration of quality in education, as we are, even though they may suffer from other equally serious problems of their own.
This confident talk about the ‘success’ of East Asian countries raises issues beyond the reach of this chapter. What is worth noticing are that many of the countries celebrate their difference from the West; an important factor when considering their outlook on labor relations.
To persist with the botanical analogy, various attitudes adopted by unionists and others outside of the region include that the role of the international labour movement is to ‘plant the seed, water and fertilise’ the development of organised labour; and that there is a moral duty to ‘cut back the growth’ of officious government restrictions on the emergence of a free labour movement in Asian countries.
There are many excuses for why the bud has not flowered – almost as many as those which explain the problems of organised labour in the OECD countries in the developed world. Some of the popular explanations include:
• conformist, including Confucian, traditions in Asia which emphasise harmony and eschew conflict; and/or
• active, aggressive behaviour by the state to repress labour unions; and/or
• economic growth and prosperity extinguishing the interest of many workers to join unions or to fight for labour rights; and/or
• alternatives to unions, including informal channels such as company welfare associations.
The problem with sweeping explanations is that, almost by definition, they are simplistic, ahistorical and, in important respects, they convey false impressions. For example, the emphasis on Confucianism and harmony ignores the conflict-laden history of most of the Asian countries – as well as their vast cultural differences.
Some of the states in the region have been paranoid about labour rights and have acted cruelly (at times) to suppress nascent union organisations. However, this is not typically the story. One of the myths that needs to be examined is the idea of docile workforces under the crack of authoritarian rule. Another is the alternative image – of happy workforces content with their lot, including the inconvenient denial of labour rights. Both images need to be explored in the analysis of the labour movement in East Asia.
Stephen Frenkel denotes three union patterns – all by reference to the role of the state – in classifying unions in the Asian region: state corporatist, state exclusionary and state collaborative.
The state corporatist model “reflects the presence of a strong state in which unions are strictly controlled by the government yet included in decision making bodies at the macro and/or micro level.” China and Singapore are cited as representative of socialist state corporatism and capitalist state corporatism respectively. However, it is strange to lump Singapore unions together with the Chinese model as similarly corporatist – whatever the affinities between the subservient relationship of Chinese unions with the Party compared to the symbiotic relationship between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Singapore National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). Ross Martin’s pithy summary of the union scene in China is apposite:
The official trade union movement in the People’s Republic of China has undergone cataclysmic, if temporary, transformation in crisis situations. At the time of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was an early casualty of factional warfare within the Communist Party. Trade union leaders were purged, some union bodies became little more than paper organisations and the ACFTU, along with the trade unions in general, was greatly weakened. The early sixties, despite a less hostile climate, saw no great improvement in their position. They came under attack again with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. This time, it was the final catastrophe: the ACFTU and all its constituent trade unions were formally abolished. But with the petering out of the Cultural Revolution, the ACFTU was ‘allowed to reopen its offices’ in 1971, although some years passed before it became fully operational. In the same mode, its constituent trade unions were haltingly re-established. Not until 1978, after Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, did the ACFTU convene the first trade union congress to be held in twenty-one years.
Subsequently, in 1989, during the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the top leadership of the ACFTU was again purged and replaced with more compliant figures respectful of the leading role of the party. The Leninist approach (unions serve as ‘transmission belts’ conveying the party line) is characteristic of the Chinese union situation.
The difference between the ‘transmission belt’ type of union and the symbiotic type, as in Singapore, has a lot to do with the ideological pretensions of tlhe ruling party. An interesting issue, of particular relevance to Singapore, is whether there will be a convergence between the Chinese and Singaporean union types. This convergence is likely to follow the death of communism. In Baum’s phrase, socialism as cognitive formalism, narrow empiricism, dogmatic scientism, feudal bureaucratism and compulsive ritualism is dead. As the leadership of the Chinese Party attempts to cling to power, the Singaporean model may become more appealing.
Frenkel goes on to describe the state exclusionary type as “union marginalisation that relies mainly, but not exclusively on repression in addition to the law, which is intended to prevent unions from becoming politically involved by confining unionism largely to the labor market.” But repression can be benign or more aggressive; it can be labour market oriented or more directly targeted at workers’ representatives.
Frenkel’s description is not clear as to what kind of repression he has in mind. In any event, it can be argued that in countries like the USA – especially in some States – a kind of quasi-state exclusionary type of system exists. Unions are relatively weak. The idea of ‘business unionism’ – the American way – suggests a keenness to confine unionism to the labour market. A theory which captures so much explains too little.
The state collaborative type, Frenkel’s third ideal type, “more commonly approximates the institutional arrangements in advanced societies”, where there is some kind of formal class compromise. Australia and New Zealand are highlighted to illustrate this type. But there is a good deal of overlap with the exclusionary type. For example, is not the debate about the future role of unions in New Zealand largely a debate about the ‘institutional arrangements’?
Ross Martin’s book Trade Unionism emphasises the political role and relationships of unions as a key descriptive and explanatory factor. Utilising that insight, it can be argued that unions in Asia may be characterised as described in Table 1.
Table 1: Union Types
|Transmission belt unions
|Unions virtually completely under the control of the ruling party which controls appointments to the key positions in the peak council and all unions.
|China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos
|Unions in formal alliance with the ruling party. Weak degree of independence-however this is stronger outside of the peak council.
|Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia (SPSI), South Korea (KTUC)
|Labour Party unions
|Affiliations or alliance with a labour or socialist party, but with relatively significant independence by the union peak council.
|Australia, New Zealand, Japan
|Weak role of unions in dealing with the government.
|Malaysia, Thailand, Korea (independent union), Philippines, Indonesia (SBSI)
The development of labour unions, industrial relations and labour law must be contrasted against the historical background of the individual country. For example, where some kinds of union organisation have been associated with insurgency activity, this has influenced the tolerance of the government to freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. There does appear, however, to be a correlation (weaker in some countries compared to others) between developing economic prosperity arid a corresponding relaxation in restrictions on trade union activities.
Human and Labour Rights
The emphasis on the growth of prosperity and therefore security for the workers and communities of various Asian countries is not the end of the story. Ma Wei Pin has argued:
Australia cannot opt out of its growing engagement with Asia. Certainly we cannot close ourselves off and expect the problem of labour rights in the Asia-Pacific to go away. On the contrary, as Asia picks up economic steam, and the social problems it brings pile up, then whatever happens will have important repercussions for Australia. We cannot afford to think of Asia as simply a market where we can rake in the dollars as disinterested roadside pedlars while passively watching Asian dissidents and unionists being sent to ‘re-education camps’.
Such a provocative challenge requires consideration of what should be done. Ensuring that a sleepy indifference to the cancellation of or abuse of workers’ rights is impossible – through exposure, publicity and agitation – is one consideration.
The poor regulation of health and safety standards, the exploitation of children and cases of cavalier indifference to human dignity are other human rights issues raised by the union movement; sometimes breaches of appropriate standards are casual; in some countries and workplaces the breaches are systemic.
The international union movement is proud of its watchtower contribution to promoting human rights and campaigning about violations of those rights. The situation in Burma and China for labour dissidents would be much worse but for the clamour of attention that can be generated by bodies such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the International Labour Organisation, and the human rights associations such as Asia Watch and Amnesty International.
The thirst for discovering and monitoring violations of rights is a good thing. However, the idealist and accusatory approach to politics and labour relations may have its down side – that is, to pretend that things are little different today than in the past. It is the relativist, human rights paradox. The situation in Shanghai in 1994 for a labour activist is much better than in 1964 when open defiance would certainly have led to execution. Yet it is also the case that in the aftermath of the democratic protests of 1989, workers – ordinary, unglamorous and semi-articulate people – have borne most of the abuse of human rights. The student intellectual, the writer commemorating the spirit of 1911 and so on, is much more of a public relations threat. CNN may report it or a manuscript may be smuggled out. But a diesel worker opposed to the Communist Party apparatchiks running his labour union is uninteresting stuff to much of the international media. What does he symbolise? Anyway, is he not, as an industrial worker, in a privileged position in a largely rural-based population? Are not his demands somewhat trivial? Can’t his demands wait? Such questions highlight arrogance about human rights.
International campaigns focused on trade union rights raise some challenging concerns. For example, an attack on Indonesian double standards on human rights has passed into the folklore of the international union movement. It concerns the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), a branch office of the international affairs department of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
In the early 1990s, AAFLI together with human rights and labour organisations within Indonesia actively campaigned against workers’ rights abuses. For all of the harmonious talk about Pancasila industrial relations by the Indonesian authorities, the reality was a different picture. (Pancasila refers to part of the official ideology of the Indonesian government, namely allegiance to five broad principles – beliefs in one supreme God, a just and civilised humanity, Indonesian national unity, democracy and social justice. Employment relations in Indonesia were supposed to be influenced by this all-embracing ideology.)
Sweet ideas of harmony have not prevented, for example, the notorious flouting of minimum wage laws. One fabulously rich individual, Dewi Motik, stated before an Indonesian media representative that her company could not possibly afford to pay minimum wages to the employees in her garment-making company. (At the time, in 1991, this minimum wage was very low in Jakarta, amounting to less than US$1.20 a day.) So, Mr. Jeffery Ballinger, the AAFLI country director, on reading this plea – and frustrated by the polite indifference of the authorities – decided to apply US Congressional marketing techniques to the problem. He reproduced a photo of the individual concerned – looking majestic and dripping in jewelry – on a postcard. On one side her sensational looking portrait; on the other her ugly quote pleading for a sympathetic hearing for her miserly wage policy. A message also appeared urging readers to send the postcard to the Minister for Labor and to protest against his slackness in prosecuting breaches of the minimum hourly wage law.
Of course, there was an explosive reaction. The individual under attack had powerful friends in high places. The Indonesian authorities attacked this confrontationist approach; AAFLI was warned that its future activities would be curtailed; a public apology by Mr. Ballinger was demanded and eventually given; soon afterwards the AAFLI staffer was expelled from the country.
All this was great stuff – a mixture of audacity and self-righteousness, with a whiff of Hollywood – dramatising the official hypocrisy of the Indonesian authorities. Subsequently, reacting to US and international pressure, the Indonesian government indicated (in 1994) a preparedness to consult with the ILO about relaxing its current restrictions on registration of unions and collective bargaining. Currently the umbrella organisation SPSI (Sarikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia – All Indonesian Workers Union) is under the control of the ruling Golkar Party. Registration rules are very tough. In order to become registered, the union must be represented in 20 out of 27 provinces, have over 100 district-level organisations and be represented in 1000 workplaces. In addition, the union must have the consent of all the other existing registered unions in order to be registered. The unregistered unions, the most important of which is the SBSI, are tolerated depending on which province they are located in and how strong they are.
This Indonesian example is one of many which highlight union campaigns for workers’ rights. Curiously, the Australian union movement has not had much to do with its Indonesian counterparts or campaigns for improved labour rights in that country.
Trade and Labour Market Flexibility
One issue of relevance to Indonesia and other countries in the Asian region is whether calls to link human rights and trade are really a demand by vested interests to protect struggling domestic industries. For example, in the United States the trade protectionists in coalition with human rights groups demanded an end to Indonesian preferential trade treatment. This is unfortunately a part of the saga about unfair labour practices and the debate about ‘new protectionism’.
Mr. Goh Chock Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, in a 1994 address to the Asia-Australia Institute attacked the new concept of protectionism in the West:
Calls to include labour and environmental standards – so-called social clauses – in trade negotiations are dressing up old notions of protection with a new cloak of respectability. The neo-protectionists argue that the West cannot turn a blind eye to child labour and other offensive practices. More candidly, they say that Western nations should not have to compete against low-income countries, which follow labour standards that the West has long abandoned.
Although conceding the ‘air of morality’ surrounding such arguments, Mr. Goh asserted:
Labour standards such as work conditions, worker rights and wage levels cannot be divorced from general living standards in developing countries and the harsh reality of abundant unskilled labour competing for too few jobs. Workers in developing countries accept bad working conditions because their alternative – unemployment, destitution and hunger – is worse. Blocking exports from these countries will not improve their lot, or create jobs for them. It will only make them poorer.
As evidence for the eventual improvement of working conditions, Mr. Goh comments: “In Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, real wages have risen fivefold in twenty years. No one in the West now argues that the Singapore worker gets a raw deal. In fact, Singaporeans enjoy a better quality of life than workers in some developed nations, though not in Australia.”
The repression of the labour market is an issue addressed in the World Bank’s 1993 report The East Asian Miracle. The report comments:
In East Asia, more than elsewhere, governments resisted the temptation to intervene in the labour market to counter outcomes unpalatable in the short term or to particular groups (for example, wages below where workers believed they ought to be, educated unemployment, or the employment of educated workers in lower level occupations). A relatively high level of efficiency in the allocation of labor was achieved by allowing wages and employment to be determined largely by the interaction of those supplying and those demanding labor services, rather than by government legislation, public sector leadership, or union pressure.
In asking why East Asian labour markets were more flexible, the authors examine the possibility of repression in the labour market being a major contributor to this result. Repression may take two forms: direct restraint on wage levels or wage growth (wage repression) or restraint on organised labour (labour repression). The authors comment that there is no stereotypical story to be told in examining this issue:
The governments of Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Taiwan did not repress wages, and yet in these economies output, exports and, ultimately, wages all increased at rates well above the international norm. These economies were adept at adjusting to changing comparative advantage as labor abundance gave way to labor scurity. At the other extreme, the government of Singapore repressed wages, at times quite severely, and the consequent costs of labor shortages appear to have been high, leading the government to abandon the policy… several HPAE [High Performing Asian Economies] have repressed labor organisations. Korea, Singapore and Taiwan suppressed independent unions. Malaysia has independent unions but highly restrictive labor laws. Hong Kong and Japan do not intervene in labor relations. However, in Japan most unions are company based.
Significant indicators of labour market flexibility include wage setting practices that tie compensation to enterprise performance; wages maintained at or marginally below market clearing levels; and the skill component of the labour force. Thus, ‘East Asian exporters shifted into more technologically sophisticated, skill intensive goods as rapidly rising wages of unskilled labor eroded international competitiveness in labor intensive-manufactured goods’.
The Case of Singapore
The union situation in the countries in the Asian region has been subject to fierce attention by some leftist scholars. Ironically, in explaining the role of organised labour, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has been singled out for attention despite the fact that the human rights record of Singapore is exemplary compared to most countries in the region.
A common line of interpretation emphasises the role of the state. For example, in a recent commentary on ‘The Decline of the Left in Southeast Asia’ published in the annual Socialist Register, Kevin Hewison and Garry Rodan lament the lost opportunities for socialism in Asia. They state: “A famous, but now defunct, Australian pop group of the 1970s once asked: ‘whatever happened to the revolution?’ If the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed like an opportunity lost in the West, then it is doubly so for much of South East Asia.” Their reference to a juvenile pop group’s incoherent, if catchy, lyrics captures a good deal about the naivety of some leftist scholars caught in their own time capsule. Although they comment that the anti-communist socialist traditions in Asia have been downplayed in many accounts of the left’s role in Asian countries, they ruin their analysis by inane interpretation. For example, they assert: “In brief, our argument is that Socialism and Communism (as closely related political movements) have, in recent times, lost much of their political and economic attractiveness.” Thus they betray their sentimental attachment to romantic interpretations of revolutionary activity and the brotherhood of communism and socialism. Whatever might be the points of alliance and overlap, the fraternity of socialists and communists, in Asian countries as elsewhere, has more resemblance to the brotherhood of Cain and Abel than anything more cosy; only a profound ignorance of history suggests otherwise.
Another aspect of their argument is that unions can, do and may again contribute to the building of civil society. What does this mean? This idea calls into relief the concept of unions as societies, which develop their own traditions, myths, rules and loyalties. Unions provide assistance to employees in raising grievances and (as in many of the countries in the Asian region) providing friendly society assistance. Unemployment and training assistance is frequently another field of union endeavour. Civil society relies on social organisations that mediate between the individual and the state.
One individual who has given a good deal of thought to the role of the union movement in the modernising experience is Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. [Note that Singapore was self-governing from 1959, in 1963 federated with Sarawak and Sabah and the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia and then, in 1965, after expulsion from Malaysia, became completely independent as the Republic of Singapore in 1965.] It is fashionable in many parts of the West to regard Mr. Lee as a despot, an authoritarian leader who clung to power; the contemporary, Singaporean version of the paramount leader without the title of head of state or prime minister. Actually, Mr. Lee’s political development is fascinating. Under-explored in much of the commentary on his political development are: one, understanding his development as a supporter of the union movement (after his return to Singapore from Cambridge in 1950, he became the legal adviser to over a hundred unions in Singapore), as a democratic socialist intellectual who came to think deeply about the challenges facing Singapore, including especially after independence, the role of the labour movement; and two, as an individual who scorned the preachy, uninformed and bossy attitude of much of the democratic left. The termination of the People’s Action Party’s membership of the Socialist International in 1975 is an important event in explaining Mr. Lee’s sometimes hectoring style in lecturing the West; in part, Mr. Lee is returning the compliment of informed criticism! Both of these factors are keys in analysing the views and attitudes of Harry Lee, circa the mid-1990s.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once thought Singapore would be an example to other developing countries, a model of democratic socialists cooperating in a mixed economy. From a realist perspective, Singapore’s PAP was sympathetic to the Non-Aligned Group of Nations which was launched at the Bandung Conference [in Indonesia from 1955]. The NTUC, inspired by the PAP, published from the late 1950s to the late 1970s an international journal, the Afro-Asian Labour Bulletin, which featured stories on the development of the union movement in various Asian and African countries; the publication also carried some of the major speeches and articles of Lee Kuan Yew and other government ministers on the labour movement. It was the confident, argumentative, pro-development voice of the Singapore model.
For example, speaking at a conference of the National Trade Union Congress at Singapore in 1969, Mr. Lee said:
There is one school of thought, that for rapid industrialisation in an underdeveloped country it is better not to have trade unions. They cite Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in support of this theory. But Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the economy is very important but equally important is the development of the nature of our society. We do not want our workers submissive, docile, and toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions.
Was this bold declaration of the independence of the union movement a cynical show? Or did these views represent the views of an individual respectful of the early role of the union movement in Singapore? I suggest the latter interpretation. In many of his public pronouncements in the 1960s, Mr. Lee argued that the old style of unionism needed to change. For example, in a speech to a regional ILO conference in 1967 he stated:
The same unions that I egged on to industrial protest action I now have to face to explain why a repetition of the habits learned in the pre-independence era must mean the disintegration of the whole of the society, as the economy ceases to keep pace with growing demands of your educated population. And you can do this in one of two ways: either educate your leaders and the unions and the men they lead, or destroy the organisations in order that the state can, in the new situation, dispense as it thinks fit. I think the latter is an act of despair, and I am confident that the same idealism, tinged with a great deal of the profit incentive for more wages and more fringe benefits, can be re-channelised to more constructive and productive pursuits.
In the same year, at a conference organised by the NTUC, in discussing the trials and tribulations of building a nation, Mr. Lee commented:
There has been vast change in Singapore in the one and a half years since we became independent on our own. This is a new situation. All slogans relevant under old circumstances are a waste of time now. Great victories scored in the past on behalf of the workers or on behalf of the peoples of Singapore over old enemies are no longer of any value now other than the experience we have gained from them. For we face new challenges. Change is a very essence of life. The moment we cease to change, to be able to adapt, to adjust, to respond effectively to new situations, and then we have begun to die. I should be loath to believe that the NTUC is one of those organisations which are dying. It will be a pity – because a lot of work went into it. But I will add this, that what we stand for not as represented in the NTUC alone but in other associations, bodies and groups – does not intend to die and will not die.
Mr. Lee also commented in this speech:
Quite a number of the union leaders whom I knew of old could barely sign their name. They were the products of the old generation. They had qualities of leadership. Extra amounts of adrenalin and all the other glandular activity that makes people do these things, and some guts to take some risks with their own personal fortune. But the younger generation growing up who will constitute two thirds of your membership are not going to trust their luck to people who cannot sign their names… Your member is going to say: “You know, this man tells me all this. But he cannot even read the latest circular that has just been issued and he is laying down the law!” But the disparity will be even greater in the emotional responses in their attitudes, their values. The capacity to anticipate change and, even more important, the determination and the ability to begin to make the changes and adjustments and adaptations now in anticipation of that change which is required, determines how successful we are, not just as individuals but as a group, as representatives of the movement, of a union, of society. This is the crux of life. We have moved from what was a quiet, trading cum garrison community into a center of great intellectual ferment with a mass of 2,000,000 people who will never be able to find meaningful lives, unless our industrialisation programme succeeds and unless we eventually cease to be dependent on the garrison for our living.
All of those quotes indicate the lively and sympathetic attention of a leader imbued with a positive view of the contribution that the union movement could make to civil society. What changed? Several things. First, Lee Kuan Yew became increasingly concerned at the potential of the union movement to agitate and upset the equilibrium of the Singapore economy. The horror of the ‘British disease’ shows up in many of the Singapore Prime Minister’s speeches.
Second, the electoral dominance of the PAP and the weakness of the extreme left in Singapore by the mid-1970s, ironically, gave much greater leeway to the PAP to shape the union movement. In the context of a fierce fight to attract electoral support, an independent ally (as the majority of unions were in the late 1950s) was very useful. The utility of such support diminished as growing prosperity coincided with PAP dominance of the unions.
Third, the campaign by sections of the Dutch and the British Labour parties in the early 1970s to censure Singapore’s suppression of human rights increasingly came to isolate the PAP. It appeared in the mid-1970s that a majority of the members of the Executive of the Socialist International, having begun an investigation into allegations of breaches of human rights by the Singapore government, might suspend the PAP from membership. Rather than be humiliated in this way, the PAP withdrew its membership of the Socialist International. (It would be wrong to regard this action as the light-hearted discarding of inconvenient associations. The PAP fiercely lobbied for support amongst Socialist International affiliates. The indifference on the part of some parties was as disillusioning as the hostility in other quarters.) Lee Kuan Yew would never forgive this snub.
Fourth, the oil shocks of 1974 and the consequent steep rise in inflation and unexpected jump in unemployment exposed the vulnerability of the Singaporean economy. It also reinforced the government’s determination to ensure that the unions were kept in check; the unions needed to understand that opportunistic efforts to reap gains from the economic mess would substantially weaken the economy.
Fifth, the working-class intellectuals at the heart of the Singapore union movement and the PAP were also convinced of the new political directions of Singapore. They were not just passive converts or lazy thinkers. People like Devan Nair (later a president of the Republic but in this period the president of the NTUC) were independently moving in the same direction as Lee Kuan Yew.
Sixth, it has to be said that like most socialists in power, Mr. Lee became more practically minded about the difficulties of building and sustaining prosperity. He shed many of his socialist illusions and became more conservative. Life had taught him to change his outlook. (But it would be a mistake to assume that it was inevitably determined that this be so or that there was a threadless move away from the socialist path. But for the Socialist International experience, it is conceivable that Singapore, even today, would be a self-proclaimed example of ‘social democracy in action’, to use the kind of rhetoric employed in the now defunct Afro-Asian Labour Bulletin.)
Nowadays, Singapore is widely viewed as an interesting model, despite all the limitations of extrapolating general conclusions based on the experiences of an island city-state. Three factors are relevant. First, Mr. Lee likes to express his views. He is articulate, considered and sometimes provocative. The Western media, for more than three decades have very often – in turning to an opinion from an ‘Asian leader’ – asked Mr. Lee to speak. Singapore’s glittering marble-clad towers have been built on the foundations of a dynamic economy. That achievement is also widely admired in the region. Success often asks to be emulated. Second, the Chinese regime, in particular, has studied the lessons of Singapore. What appeals to them is the sustaining power of the PAP who remain in control of the place. Third, Singapore’s investments, including joint ventures in other Asian countries (for example in China, the Borneo states of Malaysia and in Burma) have meant that its style of labour relations has become the ‘home town’ model of the Singaporean managers or investors.
However, the pretensions of the Singapore school, the Singapore model, or the Singapore Sage are sometimes exaggerated. There are limitations to the lessons of a city-state, especially to countries with huge agricultural workforces. Interestingly, the Chinese communists appear misguided in their enthusiasms. The PAP hardly resembles the Chinese Communist Party. It is still possible to vote the PAP out of power. The systematic reach of the PAP (even if it is bullying and arrogant at times) to control the unions or civil society is nothing compared to the authoritarian power of the Chinese communists.
Nonetheless, the reputation and the reality of Singapore’s achievements are influential. The NTUC/PAP example is in the display-case as a model of harmonious industrial relations-with freedom of association, collective bargaining and welfarist activities. (The NTUC’s health care, insurance, skilled training and cooperative ventures – including the island-state’s main taxi fleet – are examples of this). Also, if the political scene changes, though currently this seems unlikely, there is the potential for the unions to move in an independent direction. The symbiotic relationship is probably only sustainable so long as the PAP is able to provide assistance – including protecting the monopoly representation rights of the unions affiliated to the NTUC.
Australian-Asian Labour Links
The Australian union movement remains both metaphorically and in reality on the outskirts of the concerns and activities of unions in the Asian countries. The ACTU devotes few resources to this area of activity – other than affiliation to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the South Pacific and Oceanic Council of Trade Unions, the sporadic efforts of the ACTU’s International Affairs Committee, and the allocation of the time, energy and support expenses of the ACTU President (who regularly attends ICFTU and ILO meetings) and a part-time international affairs assistant. The ACTU levies its affiliates for an international fund, most of which (after international affiliation fees are paid) goes to APHEDA, the ACTU’s aid agency.
Much more activity and expenditure of resources occurs through bilateral contact through various national unions and their counterparts in the region. But even here, such contact is uneven. No unions in Australia have deep ties with, for example, union organisations in Taiwan, Thailand or Indonesia. Table 2 summarises the major areas of activity.
Only in the early 1990s did the ACTU’s international affairs committee buckle down to the job of drafting a policy on Asian-Australian labour links. The passing of the Cold War meant that there was an opportunity to escape the limited, sloganeering, resolution-adopting tradition of ACTU international affairs debates. But the resulting product is yet to bear fruit. The ACTU policy emphasises commitment to human rights and social clauses in trade agreements. Such sentiments are worthy and necessary (even if their missionary zeal sometimes appears paternalistic). Efforts to sustain the credibility of those concerns must include, first, regular contact between the union centres and major unions of the countries of the region and a critical understanding of their traditions and needs. Second, substantial resources need to be spent on training and information exchange. This should not only be an AIDAB (the Australian government’s statutory authority for administering and granting funds to non-government organisations) concern.
Table 2: Australian Union Activities in the Asian Region
|The ACTU is pursuing with the Australian government the adoption of a ‘social charter’ covering trade union and related worker rights. The ACTU wants the Australian government to support the concept of such a charter in ILO, GATT, WTO, APEC and other international bodies. The 1994 ALP National Conference carried a resolution giving broad support to this concept.
|The Australian Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA), a statutory body mostly funded through the Australian government and largely shaped by priorities set by the ACTU, is involved in providing training assistance. Usually this is in conjunction with the ILO or the ICFTU and the training activity is conducted in local countries or in Australia with sponsored delegates.
|Regional union forums
|The ACTU is an active participant in the Asian Pacific Regional Organisation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; likewise in the International Labour Organization’s regional activities. An Australian is head of the ICTUF-APRO trade union rights program (as of 1994). Various unions in Australia also have bilateral relations with organisations in Asian countries. Frequently such links are cultivated through the International Trade Secretariats (international industry union organisations which are loosely affiliated to the ICFTU).
|Specific projects involving ILO, ICFTU and the Australian government (through AIDAB) sometimes involve the ACTU or other Australian unions.
|The Australian People for Health Education and Development Assistance (APHEDA) is the ACTU’s aid arm and attracts (in 1994) over $2 million worth of annual assistance from the Federal government. Projects in health awareness and literacy have been organised in Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Without a sustained effort the Australian union movement is but a passing breeze in influencing, assisting and building the local union movements. Unions in the various Asian countries, however, will have to stand on their own accord if they are to be viable. Ideas of and practical support for solidarity and mutual assistance can help. But only indigenous, authentic organisations are likely to develop into credible and powerful agencies for the working people they purport to represent.
Unions in various Asian countries are not just organisations to be helped or to keep an eye on. Their presence raises many questions about equity and development – questions that in turn raise problems of judgment and balance. Also, the experiences of the labour organisations and the many admirable achievements and troubles of the countries of the region have relevance to the West as well as to countries in the Asian region. Some unions in Asia are not yet buds. Others are blown stalks. Still others are growing and are still to mature. History has not ended. Some buds may yet flower.
Appendix: Selected Political and Labour Indicators of Countries in East Asia
|Type of Government
|Hereditary Sultanate; fully independent since 1984
|• Weakly and sporadically organised.
|• No right of association among workers or right to strike. • Some unofficial unions such as the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma.
|Recent (1993) restoration of democracy after years of dictatorship including by the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) and the Vietnamese-installed State of Cambodia (SOC) regime (1979-93).
|• The new Constitution provides for the organisation of trade unions. • The Kampuchean Federation of Trade Unions set up under the old SOC regime now defunct. • Few operating unions.
|• The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is controlled by the Communist Party. • Independent unions, including the autonomous unions created in 1989, are vigorously suppressed. • The government claims that 92% of the workforce is unionised.
|Colonial government under British control (to transfer to China in 1997)·
|• Federation of Trade Unions the largest organisation; FTU is aligned with Beijing. The Hong Kong Council of Trade Unions is pro-Taiwan and has only a small percentage of the Workforce organised. The Independent Hong Kong and Kowloon Confederation of Trade Unions is growing in significance. • About 11% of the labour force is organised.
|Authoritarian regime of President, military and an elected Parliament
|• The SPSI, the All Indonesian Workers Union with 1.9 million dues paying members is the only recognised union. • Other labour groups are not recognised. • Unionisation of less than 6% of the workforce.
|• RENGO is the main trade union umbrella body. • Unionisation rate of 24.5%.
|Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)
|• General Federation of Trade Unions only labour organization permitted by the government. • Non-governmental labour unions do not exist.
The book in which this Chapter appeared took a while to get published. Much of the research was done in 1993 and updated the following year.
In June 1993, I had the good fortune of attending one of the most boring conferences known to man, namely the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference in Geneva, as one of the ACTU delegates. It was 3 weeks of proceedings — interminable speeches and stuffy formalities. Attending were delegations of employer, union, and government representatives from nearly every ILO-affiliated country, which meant most countries across the globe. Many having travelled so far, felt an overwhelming urge to speak at some part of the proceedings. Some had an itch to address the gathering on multiple topics. Most had nothing terribly interesting, acute, or meaningful to say.
The one useful thing decided, in the three-week convocation, was the adoption of the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 (ILO Convention No. 174).
Various documents cast in ILO-speak required concentration to get to the nub of what was proposed. The chore sent some of us to breaking point. After a week, the then ACTU Assistant Secretary Jenny George abandoned ship, returned to Australia, leaving me as co-leader of the union contingent of the Australian delegation.
There are three things that I particularly remember from the trip.
First, I was with Mary, our daughters Louise (age 7) and Amanda (5), who were enchanted by where we were staying — a townhouse in Ferney-Voltaire in France, 10km outside of Geneva. Regular buses ‘to and fro’ made the 25 minute journey comfortable.
The name of the township was part homage. Voltaire had lived there briefly, and there was a statue of him in the township and a magnificent villa that he had designed and overseen the construction of, just outside of the town centre. I thought of reading Voltaire’s collected works. But after a lie down the feeling passed. I doubt if I would ever get past his novella Candide and his tract A Treatise on Toleration. There is so much to read, so little time.
In the mornings the gentle clunking bells of the cows in the plush green fields, waiting to be milked, woke us up. (Even I could hear.) A nearby bakery, accessible via cobblestone path, led to the smells of fresh bread and pastries. It felt so authentic, I imagined I was in an ideal 17th century French village, faithfully recreated by Stephen Spielberg.
Second, utility merited that I did not follow too closely each of the mostly set-piece discussions. Instead, I discovered that if I read from a distance slightly more elevated than I was used to, lifting my head from the desk so as to spot movement in the room, I could detect when a vote was called. Then I could “participate” at once. I scanned how the various national union delegations were voting, and I put my hand up or down accordingly.
I searched through the ILO library to find obscure publications and journals that might be hard to find in Australia. One of those was Singapore’s Afro-Asian Labour Bulletin. I knew there was a publication on Singapore socialism, but at this time I could not find it. Years later, I did: Devan Nair’s Socialism That Works… The Singapore Way, Federal Publications, Singapore, 1976. This was produced as a defence to charges by several European parties in the Socialist International which were critical of Singapore and the People’s Action Party (PAP).
This research proved useful for when Greg Sheridan asked that I write something on the unions for a book he was putting together on Australia’s relations with Asia.
A third thing I recall was the dinner for the Australian delegation — a bar-b-que and smorgasbord. There was no pre-set seating. The ambassador, the employer representatives, and most of the union and departmental people flocked around the Australian Minister for Industrial Relations, The Hon. Laurie Brereton, who was visiting for a few days.
Although Australia was then ratifying certain conventions, seeking new “heads of power” under the treaty provisions in the Australian constitution, to extend the reach and power of Commonwealth industrial relations power, whatever debate there was about this centred on Canberra, rather than Geneva.
Mary and I walked into the restaurant and saw John and Janet Howard sitting by themselves. We looked at each other and moved over to their table so there was at least some company. John Howard was no longer Liberal Leader or Deputy, no longer Shadow Treasurer. He was merely Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations.
We had a great night talking about politics and influences. Sir John Carrick (1918-2018; NSW Director of the Liberal Party, 1948-1971; Senator, 1971-1987) had a big impact on him. We learnt that John and Janet first met handing out how-to-vote cards in the 1971 by-election for the state seat of Randwick in the NSW parliament, won by Laurie Brereton. And the rest, everyone knows.