In 1980, Lee Kuan Yew told SIA pilots' union he was prepared to ground airline & start over

'They know that I'm prepared to ground the airline. They know that I can get the airline going again without them.'

Henedick Chng | November 16, 2017, 05:43 PM

Back in 1980, Singapore Airlines (SIA) hit a pretty rough patch and its reputation took a bad hit.

Profits were down for the airline, it had a dispute with its pilots' union, and it was accused of shoddy treatment of its passengers affected by a strike by Australian refuellers.

ST on Nov. 11, 1980. Source: NewspaperSG

Nothing seemed to be going right for SIA.

Dispute with pilots' union

The pilot unions' dispute, in particular, was perhaps the biggest cause for concern because it showed that all was not well within the organisation itself.

And, if allowed to fester, the problem would get ingrained into the organisational culture over time and make things worse.

The dispute came about because the Singapore Airlines Pilots' Association (SIAPA) pushed SIA for a 30 percent increase in basic salaries and better working conditions.

To get its way, SIAPA launched an illegal work-to-rule industrial action.

A work-to-rule action is one where employees work no more than the bare minimum that is stated in their employment contracts. It is essentially targeted at reducing output and efficiency.

Following SIAPA's illegal act, three SIA pilots and a flight engineer disrupted their Dubai to London flight during their stopover in Zurich on Nov. 16, 1980. They had supported the work-to-rule by refusing to work beyond their 12-hour duty time.

ST on Dec. 10, 1980. Source: NewspaperSG

The dispute was coming to a head and decisive action had to be taken to quell the problem.

All the technical crew involved in disrupting the SIA flight were sacked by SIA and charged in court for carrying out the illegal industrial action.

But that was merely the addressing of a symptom of a larger problem. SIA and SIAPA were still locked in the ongoing dispute with no resolution in sight.

So the government stepped in.


Enter Lee Kuan Yew

On Dec. 15, 1980, SIAPA and its key leaders were charged in court for illegally launching the work-to-rule industrial action without first taking a secret ballot.

ST on Nov. 30, 1980. Source: NewspaperSG

But before that they had to face then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

On Dec. 1, 1980, SIAPA's key leaders were summoned to Lee's office at the Istana for meeting.

ST on Nov. 30, 1980. Source: NewspaperSG

Incidentally, happening during the same period was the 1980 General Election (GE), with Nomination Day on Dec. 13 and Polling Day on Dec. 23.

What happened during Lee's meeting with the pilots at the Istana has become the stuff of legend, which Lee himself recounted in a 1980 GE rally speech.

"I can tell you that when I met the SIA pilots, I didn't meet them on TV, I met them face-to-face. Five feet across the table so they can see me, and see whether I'm still vigorous, able to campaign and take them on. Whether it's worth taking me on.

And I offered them two choices. Either you stop this intimidation, which is what it was, bringing SIA right down. Disrupting services, ruining its reputation.

Millions of dollars worth of advertisements and sales ruined within a matter of two weeks.

I gave them a choice. Continue this and I will by every means at my disposal teach you and get the people of Singapore to help me teach you a lesson you won't forget.

And I'm prepared to start all over again or stop it! Get back to work, restore discipline, then argue your case.

Took them 65 minutes and they decided ok it isn't worth the fight.

Why? Because they know they'll lose.

They know that I'm prepared to ground the airline. They know that I can get the airline going again without them.

And let there be no mistakes about it. Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I spent a whole lifetime building this. And as long as I'm in charge, nobody's going to knock it down."

And with that, the matter with SIA was resolved.

Top image from YouTube.

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