Discussion on Workers’ Wages in Singapore Part 2: Dearth of Unions and Government-Controlled Market Economics

This article is a continuation of Part 1 of this article.

Singapore Workers Have No Unions and No Collective Bargaining Power

It is a fallacy for workers in Singapore to imagine that they have the same bargaining power as companies, or that workers have any significant bargaining power. The last time someone tried to exercise their bargaining power rights, the SMRT bus drivers were charged, jailed and deported.

The problem? We simply don’t have unions. Wait – let me take that back. We simply do not have strong, independent unions unfettered by governmental control. The NTUC is a union, yes in name, but in function? – It’s really a corporation disguised without the interests of workers at heart.

In the 1700s when America embarked on industrialisation and capitalism, workers were working long hours – 18 hours straight – and paid miserable wages. The unions formed, stepped in and started negotiating for the rights and welfare of the workers. Work hours were much reduced and wages increased significantly. Now, a majority of the countries in the world have minimum wages now – even in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. However, some commenters believe that the imposition of a minimum wage might be seen as artificially intervening in free market economics – if the market could regulate itself to find an optimal wage-price-profit balance, this is suggested as being more desirable.

Is this the approach that Singapore has taken? Well, it is the approach the government SAYS that it would like to take. If so, it hardly explains why Singaporeans have a much lower purchasing power as compared to most other East Asia economies. If Singapore is so rich by per capita GDP, why then do Singaporeans have such low purchasing powers, even when compared to other developing economies, several times poorer than Singapore? Is it because even as the wages of Singaporeans are that high that prices continue to rise even much faster?

The flipside of not having a minimum wage law, and even more worryingly so, no strong unions, is that without any significant bargaining power by the workers, a government with capitalistic intentions which has majority stakes in the largest companies in Singapore will necessarily depress wages and increase prices to increase the profitability of their own companies and this is what is happening to Singapore.

On the other hand, there are some of the few countries in the world without minimum wage laws which are actually the most equal societies in the world – the Nordic countries and Switzerland. Unlike Singapore, there are very strong unions in these countries and even without minimum wage laws, what works is that the workers have strong collective bargaining power which allows them to be compensated more fairly in their work contributions, even in the absence of minimum wage laws.

What then is the problem for Singapore workers? Singapore workers are trapped in a corundum where not only do we not have strong independent unions, we do not have a minimum wage law to protect us as well – Singapore workers are left to hang by the companies. When there are only companies and workers in the picture, capitalistic greed will mean increasing profits at the expense of workers’ rights and wages – when companies control raw materials and the modes of production, they monopolise the control over these modes and would be able to determine how much prices and wages to set. Workers who do not have control over these modes and who exist individually simply do not have enough standalone might to challenge the companies for their silo rights. The development of workers’ unions, historically, had arose out of this context, where workers learnt to collectively organised themselves, so that they would be able to stand on equal footing with companies, with thus a similar bargaining power, and collectively, to ensure that their rights are protected as well.

As stated, in Singapore, unions have been rendered useless. Or rather, after the government arrested union members of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions in Operation Coldstore in 1963, and where NTUC had then pandered towards the government’s interests, the effectiveness of unions in Singapore had since dissipated  This explains the state of the ineffectiveness of NTUC, its redundancy (in terms of worker protection) and thus the continued depression of wages of Singaporeans in the last decade.

Market Economics to Grow Wages? Not When Market Economics Are Controlled by Government

The aim of this article is to provide an overview for readers to understand Singapore’s chronic state of the depression of workers’ wages. The government might have tried to skew the discourse by claiming that they believe in allowing for market demand-supply economics to shift wages to an optimal level. But the government has never explained how this works because they know that the market demand-supply economics are under their control and determined by their policies – they wouldn’t want to explain it. If the government’s focus is to increase the profitability of the Singapore companies owned by them, it is unsurprising how wages are not increasing and thus why they have remained silence on how market economies have been ineffective, through their own planning and intervention.

If there were independent unions in Singapore, they would be able to bargain collectively for the workers. If there were independent media owners in Singapore, they would highlight the plight of workers and force the government and companies to respond accordingly. If there were independent courts in Singapore, they would charge companies for unfair practices and discriminatory practices and the government for being negligent towards workers’ rights. Unfortunately, the Singapore governing ecosystem is all tied to the government and thus Singaporeans are rendered incapacitated in their ability to advocate for their own rights.

The Internet: The New Opportunity for The People’s Consolidation of Their Power

Yet, is the situation as dire? What the government had not learn to control is the Internet. The Singapore government is an Internet buffoon. The Internet poses as possibly the only malfunction, but a very key one, in a tightly controlled Singapore ecosystem where the people are able to regenerate themselves and organise themselves into movements that had gained such traction and momentum that the government was forced to backtrack on the Singapore Population White Paper 2013, and Budget 2013 took on a more decisive turn towards some semblance of social welfarism, however minute.

Online advocacy through the flourishing of alternative news websites and investigative journalism, coupled with key influencers in the know who have constantly put out insider news and information have resulted in a constant outflow of the ‘truths’ which has rallied Singaporeans’ support towards the injustice of workers’ treatment and rights, and a gradual ground-up advocacy towards the government.

The government might still have a control over the tight networks and legal obstacles that they might have put in place. But the government did not know how to plug the Internet and will never now be able to do so unless the Internet becomes obsolete. The social progression of things to come will naturally develop among the people a renewed channel for the consolidation of their power, which will prove to be a worthy force that the government would need to reckon with.

Onwards Singapore.


  1. Pingback: Discussion on Workers’ Wages in Singapore Part 1: Wages vs Prices of Goods | The Heart Truths
  2. Jonno

    Question: What does Yap Ah Loy & Lee Kuan Yew have in common?
    Answer: They are both Hakkas and they both like to run monopoly businesses. One was responsible for the development of KL as a tin mining town while the other was responsible for S’pore as an entrepot trade & financial centre. One lead a notorious secret society called Hai San while the other lead a political party known as PAP. Both decimated their rival; the former, the Ghee Hins and the latter, the Barisan Socialis.
    Like I say, Singapore is no different from that of a tin mine. From wikipedia on Yap Ah Loy, “He achieved a striking post-war recovery in the mining industry and established Kuala Lumpur as the economic centre of the peninsula. Through his control of the tin market, his ownership of local “farms” (monopolies on the sale of items such as opium and exclusive control of activities such as gambling, prostitution, racketeering and loan sharking), and his diverse business interests, he amassed a considerable personal fortune.” and “…Yap Ah Loy, emerged as leader, and became responsible for the survival and subsequent systematic growth of this town. He began to develop Kuala Lumpur from a small, obscure settlement into a booming mining town. In 1880, the state capital of Selangor was moved from Klang to the more strategically advantageous Kuala Lumpur.
    In 1881, a flood swept through the town following a fire which engulfed it earlier. These successive problems destroyed the town’s structures of wood and atap (thatching). As a response, Frank Swettenham, the British Resident of Selangor, required that buildings be constructed of brick and tile. Hence, Kapitan Yap Ah Loy bought a sprawling piece of real estate for the setting up of a brick industry which would spur the rebuilding of Kuala Lumpur. This place is the eponymous Brickfields. Hence, destroyed atap buildings were replaced with brick and tiled ones. He restructured the building layout of the city. Many of the new brick buildings mirrored those of shop houses in southern China, characterised by “five foot ways” as well as skilled Chinese carpentry work. This resulted in a distinct eclectic shop house architecture typical to this region. A railway line increased accessibility into the growing town.
    Development intensified in the 1890s, leading to the creation of a Sanitary Board. Kapitan Yap Ah Loy spent a sum of $20,000 to expand road access in the city significantly, linking up tin mines with the city, these roads include the main arterial roads of Ampang Road, Pudu Road and Petaling Street.”
    Find that familiar?
    An epithet from Yap Ah Loy’s legacy was his considerable fortunes never lasted over 4 generations. Also, KL’s destiny was handed over to the Malays (Bumiputera).

  3. Pingback: PM Lee: Grow the Economy to Grow Your Wages. Oh, Really? | The Heart Truths

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