HR practitioners from outside of Singapore and schooled in traditional labour relations can find the Tripartite Agreement a complex labour arrangement to navigate.
The application of tripartism becomes more clouded when two of the parties are close bedfellows. The recent appointment of the former Minister of Manpower, Lim Swee Say, to the role of Chairman of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) Learning Hub (alongside his existing role as a Trustee and advisor to the NTUC), is evidence of the deep relationship between the government and the union movement. While it is common in many countries for labour-oriented politicians to hold positions in the union movement before or after their political careers, Ministers in the Singaporean Government regularly rotate through senior positions in the NTUC and affiliated unions while still in government roles.
- From 2018 to 2021, Dr Koh Poh Koon, (then Minister for Health, and Trade & Industry) served as the NTUC Deputy Secretary General, prior to returning to government as Senior Minister of State in the Manpower Ministry.
- Replacing him in May 2021, Mr Chee Hong Tat (Minister for Transport, and now also Senior Minister of State for Finance) was appointed as NTUC Deputy Secretary General and group director of the NTUC’s training and transformation group. He was also appointed as a cadre member of Upage (Union of Power and Gas Employees) and Executive Secretary of UWEEI (United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries).
- In the June 2022 Cabinet Appointments, it was announced that Mr. Chee Hong Tat would relinquish his NTUC positions and would be replaced by Mr. Desmond Tan (Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office).
In May this year, Mr. Lawrence Wong (appointed in June as the new Deputy Prime Minister) gave the Labour Day address, referencing the Amazon warehouse unionisation in the United States and the ‘pushback’ from the company. His speech is a helpful commentary for HR practitioners seeking to understand the history of tripartism in Singapore.
Outlook for Employers: Labour relations within Singapore is underpinned by a commitment by all parties to tripartism, including the Singapore National Employers Federation. It is important to understand the intention of the agreement, the relationships between the parties, and the spirit of ‘responsible employment’ when entering negotiations with trade unions.