Former NMP Calvin Cheng: NTUC has to be independent of PAP

NTUC is Singapore's union organisation, not the PAP's.

Zhangxin Zheng | May 2, 04:49 pm


Heng Swee Keat delivered his maiden speech as Deputy Prime Minister at the May Day Rally on Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

In his speech, Heng emphasised the “close symbiotic relationship” between the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and the People’s Action Party (PAP) and pledged to continue it into the fourth generation of PAP leadership.

This close relationship often results in political office-holders holding leadership positions in the NTUC Central Committee.

For example, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Ng Chee Meng is the Secretary-General of NTUC. Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, is the Deputy Sec-Gen of NTUC.

This is also why NTUC members usually shout “Majulah NTUC! Majulah PAP!” at their rallies.

These close ties may be the result of how Singapore espouses a tripartite model of cooperative relationship between the government, employers, and the trade union (which represents the interests of workers).

Here’s why we think new DPM Heng Swee Keat is making his maiden DPM speech at May Day Rally

Time for NTUC to cut its umbilical cord with the PAP

In response to Heng’s speech, former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and former Young PAP member Calvin Cheng suggested that it is time for NTUC to “cut its umbilical cord with the PAP”.

Cheng explained how NTUC and PAP came together because of a “shared and fraught history”.

History of relationship

Back in the 1961, an overwhelming left-wing majority of the PAP defected to form Barisan Socialis.

Concurrently, the union association — then called Singapore Trade Union Congress (STUC) — also split into two factions: Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) with 82 unions, and the NTUC with only 27 unions.

SATU allied with Barisan Socialis, while NTUC backed PAP.

SATU eventually collapsed in 1963 after Barisan Socialis leaders were detained in Operation Coldstore.

PAP and NTUC prevailed.

NTUC the strongest union these days

Fast forward to the present, NTUC has become the strongest and, for many, the only union association in Singapore that workers have access to.

However, given its strong ties to the current government, Cheng said that NTUC has to be mindful to remain pro-Singapore and be willing to work with any party that is elected by the people if and when the time comes.

NTUC can no longer be an “alternate centre of power” for the PAP anymore, said Cheng.

And instead of continuing this “close symbiotic relationship” with the ruling party, Cheng concluded that perhaps it is time to “cut its umbilical cord with the PAP”.

You can read the full Op-Ed from Cheng here:

For your convenience, here’s the full text in the post:

In his maiden speech as DPM, Mr Heng Swee Keat spoke about the close relationship between the PAP and the NTUC, and how this helped Singapore weather many storms in ‘the early years’.


The PAP and the NTUC were close because of a shared and fraught history.

The PAP split in 1961 when its left-wing members broke away to form the Barisan Socialis.

This break-away faction, led by Lim Chin Siong, was by far the more powerful.

20 out of 25 branch secretaries and their committees defected to the Barisan Socialis in a spectacular internal coup. LKY and the rump PAP were nearly decimated overnight.

Concurrently, the then Singapore Trade Union Congress (STUC) also split into two.

Again, the Union body allied to Barisan was the stronger, with 82 unions breaking away to form the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).

27 other unions allied with LKY’s rump PAP to form the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

And therefore NTUC, the only union organisation that most Singaporeans today know, was born.

The rest is history.

The PAP prevailed over the Barisan, LKY over Lim Chin Siong, and the NTUC over SATU.

Today, few younger Singaporeans have heard of the Barisan Socialis, SATU, and their supremo and LKY’s greatest rival, Mr. Lim Chin Siong.

Such is history cruel to the losers.


Today, the NTUC is by far the strongest union body in Singapore.

There is no doubt that Tripartism -the unique close relationship between the Government, Employers, and Workers – has helped Singapore avoid the labour unrest that plagued many countries, and weathered many storms.

But its success has meant that the NTUC and its affiliates is overwhelmingly the only choice for workers.

Despite its close historical relationship with the PAP, for Tripartism to work, the NTUC has to work with the Government of the Day, whether it is the PAP or another party.

A day may come when the PAP is no longer in power. Does that mean that the NTUC remains close to the PAP and become an alternate centre of power for them, like in 1961?

This cannot be. This is not 1961. Singapore is now almost 54 years old and a developed country. More importantly, there is no SATU or any union body to rival the NTUC.

The NTUC must be willing to work with any party that is elected by the people.

It is no longer PAP’s union organisation. It is Singapore’s.

Instead of retaining “a close and symbiotic relationship” with the PAP as Mr. Heng has promised, the NTUC must actually do the opposite.

It is time for the NTUC to cut its umbilical cord with the PAP.

Top photo collage from NTUC and Calvin Cheng’s Facebook

About Zhangxin Zheng

Zhangxin’s favourite pastime is singing Mulan’s soundtrack in the mangrove forests. She hopes to perfect the art of napping in a hammock in the mangroves without being drowned by rising sea levels.

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