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How Trust And The Gentlemen’s Agreement Built Singapore

This article originally appeared on Vulcan Post

This year is the first time Singapore has hosted the International Forum on Tripartism (IFT). Inviting several delegates from other countries practicing the tripartism framework, such as Japan, Barbados, and Denmark, international players came together to discuss each country’s experience in using this unique method to grow and support their labour market.

The event may sound like a yawn off-hand. A bunch of people gathered in a room to discuss nation-growing tactics. But from this yawn came a very fundamental understanding that staggered me — all these people believed that cooperation could grow a nation.

That’s essentially what this clunky word of tripartism means. That in the labour market, all the major players come together to work out their issues at a single table. Workers sit with employers and government officials, and everyone works their way through wage or welfare disputes, through peaceful times like now and unstable times like epidemics and recessions. Even now, when the haze is at its worst, tripartism is at work helping workers and businesses come up with a framework that allows for flexible working hours and healthcare.

And surprisingly, this is something that Singapore is very good at. Some say tripartism is our secret sauce.

The keynote speaker of the IFT event on Monday was Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), an international alliance that has been around for even longer than the United Nations. The ILO is the UN body that champions tripartism globally. In his speech on Monday, Mr Ryder shared that Singapore has become a model to emulate amongst tripartite nations.

NTUC
Image Credit: NTUC

He began by quoting UN official Albert Winsemius, who said in 1984: “The ‘Singapore Miracle’ isn’t a miracle, but a product of hard-headed policy.”

“We all base tripartism on the basis of the results it generates,” said Mr Ryder. “And in Singapore…the results are there for everybody to see in terms of economic growth, in terms of employment, in terms of improved living conditions. And I think Singapore tripartism passes the essential test of good results.”

The problem with trust

The keyword in Singapore’s tripartite movement is trust. It was a word said often that day by Secretary General of NTUC Chan Chun Sing, Minister of Manpower Lim Swee Say, and even Dr Robert Yap, President of the Singapore National Employers Federation. Trust is the glue that has held everything together and made everything work. And yet, trust is the weakest link in most tripartite movements the world over.

Our unique brand of tripartism has been Singapore’s competitive advantage. It has seen us through good and bad times. I…

Posted by Chan Chun Sing on Sunday, 25 October 2015

With the dramatisation of conflict in displaying the strength of unions in most parts of the world, some people still find it hard to accept that a gentlemen’s handshake is adequate to build a stable workforce. It’s enough to make the most skeptical of us furrow a brow, and understandably.

As Minister Lim pointed out, many still believe that “strong tripartism means weak unionisation, or strong unionisation means weak tripartism”.

This problem of trust has turned out to be an international one. The ILO is often still met with skepticism. And according to Mr Ryder, even parties who see how national objectives are met through negotiations, consultations and exchange of information between representatives of interested parties, remain unwilling to openly speak about it.

But there, in that room on Monday, were people who spent an entire day discussing how trust and cooperation had helped build a nation. Delegates shared their different types of social dialogue: whether it involved bipartite relations between labour and management, or tripartite relations that bring in government involvement. They shared how it has helped craft harmonious relations in the workforce in their countries, the problems they face, and the ways we can resolve them.

Whatever you choose to call it — tripartism here in Singapore, social dialogue amongst social partners in other member states of ILO — the intent is to have an open and positive dialogue to solve problems together. The hardware, i.e., the framework and all, is easy to set up; it is the software — what we call trust — that is harder. And it is trust that can ultimately make or break the deal.

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And in Singapore, the outcome speaks for itself — a country that just hit 50 years old, but has barely lost any manpower hours to strikes since the 70s. Singapore has seen the most results with our brand of social dialogue, and it took an international gathering of people using the same framework to show us that.

As the event drew to a close, the people in attendance at the event began to ask what the future holds for tripartism. The nature of business, of work, of everything is evolving quickly. As Mr Ryder shared, people are expecting very different things from work today than they are 50 years ago. Work may fundamentally be a way for us to meet our material needs, but in reality, it is so much more.

Dealing with change, according to Mr Ryder, is something that Singapore does well.

“The world of work does not stand still,” said Mr Ryder. “The world of work is changing and we need to adapt to that, not tomorrow but very quickly. There are problems ahead, don’t close your eyes to them, recognise them, and respond to them. And this is historically something that Singapore has done extraordinarily well.”

“You think of what is coming down the road at you and you prepare and plan for it, and my impression from this visit is, as I say, on this historic occasion of SG50, you’re already thinking for the next challenges, and I think that is absolutely vital and fundamental for your future success.”

NTUC
Image Credit: NTUC

The challenge is real, and it’s about trust

Our Singaporean obsession with SG100 has led us to predict challenges in the advancements of technology and globalisation, but another huge challenge that tripartism faces is the skeptical next generation. A generation of educated and supposedly worldly millennials who only know of comfortable lives.

As the congregation of delegates look ahead to the future, there is a very real risk that tripartism might become…unpopular, or negated to just government-speak. The less trust the younger generation has in the system that has worked for the last five decades, the less likely tripartism will withstand the test of time. In this new generation that has made confrontation and vigilantism on the Internet so popular, it’s difficult to imagine them believing that cooperation could mean strength.

Tripartism’s successes through the 60s and 70s are fast becoming old news in a world where real news only lasts for hours. And as economic cycles get shorter and changes become diverse, trust becomes expensive.

And elusive.

The fact that we have yet to escape from (mostly!) men in stuffy suits and even stuffier speeches when discussing tripartism, with made-up words like “futurisation”, brings to question how they will communicate effectively to the next generations that you CAN put your trust in another party, like employers, unions, or the government, to take care of you. (Futurisation: coined by Minister Lim Swee Say to refer to the ability of a nation to move faster into the future and remain ahead of the competition.)

It doesn’t even matter that the unions are working quietly to help and support over 888,000 members and over 1,600 unionised companies, because nobody knows very much about tripartism, or about what goes on behind the scenes. Nobody really knows that the easy-breezy environment that we operate in today is, really, the outcome of successful tripartism.

But perhaps it’s time we ponder the perennially popular and yet irritatingly lame question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, did it still make a sound? Don’t laugh, this question has been floating around for years and years. Most people say ‘yes’. So, by the same logic, if successful tripartite negotiations have taken place to create the efficient system and effective environment we have, then tripartism really HAS made an impact even if we weren’t there to see it happen. Creating noise and conflict may be eye-catching, but having a balanced negotiation and coming to a peaceful consensus is effective.

NTUC
Image Credit: NTUC

As Minister Lim said in his closing speech, the next generation is essential for tripartism to continue to flourish. “During good times,” he said, “It is important that we continue to build trust so that when it comes to difficult times, there are sufficient trust amongst the partners for us to work together.”

Perhaps it’s our cynical nature that holds us back, or maybe we just don’t know enough about tripartism and all that jazz. But it is worrying if over time, we keep losing faith that we could build a better and stronger nation with sheer trust and cooperation, and in doing so, lose the possibility that we can help everyone, even ourselves, just with a single gentlemen’s handshake.

We can probably do better.

 

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