The Case for an Independent Singaporean Labor Movement

Editor’s Note:

Behind the image of Singapore as a wealthy city-state with an affluent population is the reality of a labor movement dominated by the state-controlled National Trades Union Congress and a tripartite system that disadvantages workers. In recent years, a new radical collective, Workers Make Possible, has emerged to challenge this system, and advocate instead for independent worker organizing.

Such a challenge is much needed, but also daunting in a political system that doesn’t shy away from criminalizing activism. Josephine, an independent researcher from Singapore, recently spoke with Kumarr and Kokila who are organizers with Workers Make Possible, to learn about Singapore’s labor movement landscape, why they are mounting a challenge, and what they hope to accomplish.

Who are Workers Make Possible (WMP), and what do you do?

Kumarr: Workers Make Possible is a workers’ and tenants’ rights organization. We follow an empowerment model. We believe that we can provide the tools to workers to organize themselves and fight whatever comes their way. A lot of what we do is about building solidarity amongst workers from different sectors, different nationalities, and different income levels. There is a real need for that. Building our consciousness as workers in Singapore and building a shared identity as one working class is a big part of our commitment. A lot of public discourse in Singapore fragments the working class. For example, migrant workers are often seen quite separately from local workers, and they talk about it as if we have different interests and are pitted against each other.

Kokila: There is also depoliticization of us as workers. Civil society focuses a lot on our power as citizens to make interventions through advocacy, which is increasingly professionalized. But I think it’s important to also recognize our power as workers, including our ability to withhold labor. It will be an important piece in long-term political change of any kind. We cannot forget that Singapore’s anticolonial struggle was built on the backs of labor and trade unions and won through the power of the labor movement.

Kumarr: WMP also organizes an annual Labor Day rally. We did the first one last year, and its significance is that it’s the only politically independent May Day rally in Singapore—a rally by and of the people.

You’ve mentioned that your independence is a defining reason why WMP is necessary. Why is this so?

Kokila: We operate in an environment where unions are completely co-opted by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Independence is about creating space for workers to organize in a way that builds their power from the ground up, on their terms, because National Trades Union Congress (or NTUC, Singapore’s only trade union center based on a tripartite model of industrial relations between the government, employers, and unions) completely demobilizes and depoliticizes workers. The tripartite system we have here puts workers at a huge disadvantage and neuters their power. It hugely diminishes workers’ collective bargaining power and skews negotiations against workers since power often lies with the state and employers in determining the outcome of any grievance. So, it’s crucial for workers to be able to organize independently without being forced into tripartism,

Under our current political conditions, it is important for workers to organize independently of the tripartite system. For example, if we had a socialist party or a socialist government, I think it’s fine for unions to have those political affiliations, as we did in the past when the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front, a left-wing political party) represented workers’ interests. They organized workers in many sectors, and many party members were labor organizers who built and led a lot of unions across Singapore as part of a broader socialist movement. When we have a capitalist government, it is important for us and any serious workers’ associations to be independent of the People’s Action Party (or PAP, the ruling party that has remained in power since independence from colonial rule in 1963) system and NTUC. That is what we mean when we say independent.

Kumarr: It’s about being independent of business and capital, which isn’t necessarily anti-PAP, but the PAP is very pro-business. It is pro-capital. It claims that it’s socialist, but it’s not. If you look at tripartite representation in the National Wage Council, for example, the workers’ representative is an NTUC representative, and the NTUC is state-controlled. You’ve got business and union leaders, but workers themselves are underrepresented.

The basis of legitimacy for this tripartite model is modernizing unions. That idea came out of Singapore’s early years of development. Since then, tripartism has been conflated with industrial peace, economic development, and efficiency. How true is this?

Kumarr:‘Industrial peace’ is what a lot of governments use to justify higher investments in police to break strikes, to bust unions, and so on. It’s a very nice sounding phrase, but it has very violent connotations. We don’t think industrial peace is necessarily a good thing for workers. We are living in a class war. It’s just that the capitalists are winning. Any government that advocates for industrial peace is agreeing to dismantle the working class and its power to fight.

Kokila: The tripartite model is anti-contestation. Justice comes about through contestation, and that fundamentally, capital and labor have different interests. And when we have different interests, it is only by preserving our rights as workers to contest oppression – when capital has so much disproportionate power – that we can even have any possibility of just outcomes. It is a lie to pretend that capital and labor can have common ground. We don’t want the same things. It is only the threat of our collective power that can keep capital in check. This model of everybody being friends with each other – which NTUC likes to suggest – is not in workers’ interests. It ultimately serves capital and the state in preserving their power over the working class.

Kumarr: This so-called industrial peace allows capital to go on strike endlessly but not labor. So there’s a double standard. Capital goes on strike through capital flight. When businesses decide they don’t want to invest here anymore because the labor laws are too strong, or – oh, all the jazz now is about flexible work arrangements. The government has proposed all these things, and certain ministers have said that if we allow for a four-day workweek or flexible work arrangements, then businesses will just move to India.

Kokila: That is the threat of capital strike. Even if there’s no actual capital flight, they threaten to deny workers reasonable conditions, and we are forced to accept worse and worse terms. Overall, since the 60s, since the labor movement was violently decimated by the PAP, workers have ceded so much power to capital. When there are fundamentally opposed interests, how can only one party have the right to make these threats?

Apart from a few migrant worker rights groups, labor issues have consistently taken a backseat in Singaporean civil society since the 1990s. What are some recent drivers behind this resurgence of grassroots labor activism?

Kokila: I think it’s important to recognize that workers have always engaged in struggles. There was the SMRT Corporation (One of two of Singapore’s public transport operators and a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, a conglomerate owned by the Singapore government) workers’ wildcat strike in 2012, which was led by migrant Chinese drivers who protested against discriminatory salaries and the poor standards of accommodation provided by the company. Through the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, workers have been engaged in different forms of resistance. Some we know of, and some we don’t. It’s also intentionally shrouded in how the state media emphasizes the illegality of their actions. In Singapore, strikes by essential workers are illegal unless employers are given two weeks’ notice. Workers could be fined up to $2000, a year of imprisonment, or both. But perhaps worse is when the media doesn’t report on them and obscures them completely.

WMP started because we paid attention to these actions. We started when a group of bus drivers sued SBS Transit (The other major public transport operator under majority ownership by ComfortDelGro Corporation in 2019 for making them work past the weekly legal limit of 72 hours, denying them rest days, and underpaying them for overtime shifts. The workers filed separate lawsuits to seek damages from SBS. What was so striking was how migrant and local workers worked together on that case – 10 Malaysian drivers and 3 Singaporean ones. But civil society wasn’t paying attention. In Singapore, workers’ actions are often not registered as political action, as collective action, or as people contesting oppression. An NGO submitting a research report or doing a media campaign is registered as fighting oppression, but why was no one talking about this, supporting them, or seeing them as involved in political resistance? So, we reached out to the lawyer working on the case and wanted to see how we could support the workers.

Of course, when there is no committed or sustained effort to build a labor movement, these actions cannot build power. People are always taking action in their own workplaces, quietly or loudly, to fight different kinds of oppressive conditions. But when it’s not organized, or there isn’t consciousness that this is a collective struggle, it cannot build power. So, what we see our role as in WMP in terms of this resurgence of the labor movement is to see where workers are angry, where they’re fighting, support it and connect the fights – rebuilding the labor movement that way.

How is the labor movement of today different or similar to those of the past?

Kumarr: If you talk about the heyday of the labor movement in the 50s and 60s, they had different conditions. You had an anticolonial upsurge, and the labor movement was intertwined with that. There weren’t intricate methods of oppression; our men in white (reference to the ruling PAP government) colonize us better than the white men – the way that they isolate, divide and rule, and also shape perspectives and ideology. We didn’t have that back then. The labor movement had the first-mover advantage. We don’t have that vibrancy today. We have to build it. The challenge is building that on decades of suppression, decades of telling workers and individuals that you’re small, that you’re worthless, that your boss knows better than you, that you’re stupid, and that you have no power.

Kokila: I think the idea of organizing the working class and building a people’s movement as the way to bring about political change was common sense at the time, but now there is less shared imagination and confidence in this possibility. Organizing workers or tenants to fight for their rights is even perceived as anachronistic or an unviable strategy compared to other models of activism and advocacy.

Your point on building vibrancy makes me think about the Labor Day rally you organized. It showcased a variety of causes, some of which were not directly related to labor issues. For example, you had SG Climate Rally (A student-led climate activism group that organized Singapore’s first climate rally in 2019) and NTU FinAid (NTU Financial Aid Friends, a student group formed at Nanyang Technological University that campaigns for improvement to the university’s financial aid system). How are they connected to the labor movement WMP is trying to build?

Kumarr: There is a class character to all these causes. Look at the climate crisis, for example. SG Climate Rally they are for a just transition. They’re not just about cutting down emissions at all costs. They are an organization that has talked a lot about how we need to bring workers along with us in the transition and that they don’t suffer disproportionately from it and are able to thrive as well.

For us, building and sustaining alliances is necessary because the labor movement cannot be built in a silo away from other pressing social concerns of our times. We are also interested in a planet that we can all live in! And it’s important that we have a student movement that is vibrant and in mutual solidarity with workers. NTU Finaid fights for affordable student fees so that youth from lower-income backgrounds can go to college. And that’s a working-class issue.

Kokila: All our struggles are connected. What connects us is all the groups at Labor Day represent working class interests, whether it’s the interests of sex workers, the interests of working-class students, or the interests of low-income tenants. I think the working-class movement must have a vision that is broader than economism or workers fighting for better wages and living conditions at the workplace alone.  The workplace is only one site of the fight. That’s why welfare is a big part of Labor Day. Asking for affordable housing or healthcare and access to education are public goods that belong to ordinary people. Social reproduction issues are as much a part of our Labor Day demands, speeches and messaging as production is. It is a fight for better working and living conditions.

Kumarr: And an independent mass-based media. That’s why Wake Up SG (Wake Up Singapore, a volunteer-run independent media outfit) was there. Such an organization has been so instrumental in platforming a lot of these workers’ stories. There was also an anti-imperialist section. Wars very often disadvantage the working class. It’s usually working-class people who are made to fight these wars and are killed in these wars. And when we say, “power to the people” or “return power to the people”, it means all of this – powered media, people-powered universities – that these become democratic spaces. The shared vision is for democratic spaces and possibilities for the masses.

What are some concrete changes to laws and policies in Singapore that WMP believes are necessary to improve the lives of workers?

Kumarr: For Labor Day last year, we came up with fifteen demands. These continue to inform our work. Many of them include changes to legislation, policies like minimum wages, banning the transport of migrant workers on the backs of lorries, and fewer restrictions on the formation of independent unions.

Is there any particular demand that WMP believes is necessary as the first domino to fall?

Kokila: The first thing that needs to change, I think, for everything else to become possible – is all the severe sanctions and laws preventing workers from organizing and speaking up. There’s too much fear. We can only win on other issues once workers can speak without fear, organize, and take action.

Workers will – and do, everywhere, if they’re free to – fight back. We don’t need to teach them. But the problem is all the barriers. If you take away the barriers, communities will thrive, and workers will thrive. I think that the legal, administrative, and political infrastructure that is diminishing the power of the working class, through all the threats of arrest, the threats of losing your job, and the very carceral and punitive environment for the working class, are the biggest barriers. Workers don’t have the freedom even to hold up placards in silence if they are not paid wages for months on end, which we saw recently happen – workers who’ve been experiencing wage theft for months but were deported for calling attention to it. If you cannot even do that, then you cannot fight for minimum wages because you need the freedom to express, assemble, and associate.

Kumarr: Yeah, it’s about democratizing, which is not just a labor issue, but really it concerns many other causes too. You can’t give out flyers or put up posters; it’s too suffocating.

Given increasing limits on democratic freedoms and the decades-long co-optation of labor in Singapore, what WMP seeks to do is ambitious. What keeps you going? What are your sources of learning and inspiration?

Kokila: I think the sense of what we can do expands when we situate ourselves in time and place, and our understanding of both expands. Learning about the labor movement in the 50s, 60s, 70s, provided me with a sense of possibility because there can be no movement without legacy. We’re always building on something. One of the problems I see is this almost perverse sense of constant “now-ness”. It is as if everything that is happening now just came about. There is a presentism. It’s like everything is being done for the first time. No, a lot has been done before, and we’re building and learning from our history. I think it is to our great peril that we forget, and it’s so strengthening to learn, to situate ourselves in history.

Some of us have been exploring, making trips to neighboring countries, and learning how they’re organizing the grassroots, whether it’s the tenants or workers. That expanded sense of time and place brings possibilities. Your imagination expands because you’re moving away from this very narrow ‘now-ness’, drawing strength and possibility from what has happened before and what is happening outside of here. And I think it’s also fighting this exceptionalism, as if everything is so special in Singapore that we cannot do what our neighbors and people everywhere around the world are doing. Drawing inspiration from people before us and the people around us has made it possible.

I do think it’s very much more challenging. It cannot be stressed enough how much more challenging it is to build a labor movement now than before the 90s. There was a much stronger socialist spirit at the time. There was so much regional solidarity for the workers’ movement, and people had the opportunity to be united against the common enemy of colonial rulers, which I think provided a certain kind of opportunity. But under all conditions, however oppressive, it is possible, and necessary, for resistance to find a way, like a seedling forcing its way through a crack in the concrete, claiming its place in the world.

Josephine is an independent researcher from Singapore.