TL;DR – It took decades and an exhibition for one of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s watches to be reunited with Mrs Lee’s.
It was late Saturday morning and I had just spent a good 2 hours wandering the halls of the National Museum of Singapore. I was particularly captivated by the “Moving Memories” exhibition, with life-sized murals of old Singapore scenes projected on LED walls. Filled with wistful memories of Singapore’s past, I was lost in thoughts of my own when I stumbled upon an exhibition tucked away in a quiet corner on the 2nd floor.
Aptly titled “ReUnion”, the meandering exhibition layout intended to showcase 50 years of the Labour Movement’s journey since their landmark 1969 Modernisation Seminar. The Labour Movement is often referred to synonymously as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), representing the workers in Singapore, playing a pivotal role in nation building.
I took my time to browse the exhibits in chronological order – charting the origins of trade unionism from the 1940s to how the early trades unions in 1960s and 1970s helped to pave the way for sustainable economic progress through Tripartism. The chronological journey ends in the 2000s and 2010s with initiatives like the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) and Worker 4.0 being highlighted.
If you only have a short time, these are the 3 more interesting memorabilia that is guaranteed to give you a blast from the past… some even with hidden meanings.
1. Timeless Times Pieces
Upon first glance, these seemed like ordinary watches but my curiosity was piqued as to why they were encased in glass as a standalone exhibit. Turns out that eons ago in 1953, this pair of couple Rolex watches were presented to the late Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew by the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers (SUPTW) as an appreciation gift.
You see, back then when he was a young lawyer, he had represented these workers in a wage dispute and managed to secured 28 months’ back pay for nearly 1,000 clerk.
This was Mr Lee’s first encounter with the trade unions, and he had gone on to help even more workers in other unions fight for their rights.
The following year, he went on to become Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party (PAP). With over half of the founding members of the PAP coming from the trade unions, this set in motion a symbiotic relationship between PAP and the trade unions that has continued on even till today.
What was so significant about the exhibit was that this was the first time that both watches were reunited for an exhibition… evoking a whole lot of feels with these “timeless time pieces”. You see, Mr Lee’s watch has always been kept with the National Museum, and Mrs Lee’s, with NTUC.
2. NTUC FairPrice cards through the ages
While certainly not the most exciting and historically rich exhibit, this was the exhibit I identified with the most!
That was because my mother has a NTUC FairPrice card exactly like the one from 1988. I had fond memories of grocery shopping at NTUC FairPrice with my mother, who would always be sure to allow me a sweet treat. We’d spend a good amount of time roaming the brightly-coloured aisles, foraging enough supplies to last us the week.
Only upon further browsing did I realise the link between the labour movement and NTUC FairPrice.
Turns out NTUC FairPrice actually started out as a cooperative called Welcome (supermarket), established by the unions, which would sell essential commodities like rice, sugar and cooking oil at reasonable prices to combat unscrupulous traders who hoarded and profiteered.
Today, NTUC FairPrice continues to uphold that social mission of keeping prices of daily necessities affordable. That and well… creating fond memories for families that grocery shop together.
3. The start of a new era for trade unions
I read the captions of this photograph – “The participants of the historic Trade Union Seminar on “Modernization of the Labour Movement”. Not many understand the background behind this photograph and the effects of the ground-breaking seminar that laid the foundation of a new era of trade unionism.
If it’s easier, you can imagine that Modernisation Seminar to be a major strategic thinking exercise, a meeting of top brains to figure out how to reinvigorate NTUC.
The year was 1969.
Things were bleak – Singapore had to leave the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 and the British pulled out their troops between 1967 to 1971. Singapore was left to fend for herself and union membership was on the decline. It’s an understatement to say there was disenchantment among the rank-and-file.
The meeting of top delegates from the trade unions and its affiliates was to chart out a new approach to trade unionism. Notable figures included Devan Nair from NTUC, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee and then Minister for Labour and Foreign Affairs S Rajaratnam.
At the end of the four-day Modernisation Seminar in November 1969, the Labour Movement put forth 14 recommendations as part of its strategic plans for the future. Among the most significant were the movement’s assumption of responsibility for Singapore’s economic survival and the establishment of co-operatives.
I got curious and went to search for all 14 recommendations when I got home:
Moving forward with trust and mandate from Singaporeans
Through the exhibition, I was able to get a glimpse into how far the NTUC has come and how it has played an critical role in nation building through the decades. There has developed a special trust between the Government, Unions and Employers and this has laid a strong foundation for Tripartism and paved the way for steady economic growth.
The Labour Movement must also continue to live up to the trust that members have placed in the union in fighting for their rights and continue to roll out initiatives and co-operatives that look after their interests.
The mindset of Modernise or Die behind the historic Modernisation Seminar is one that must take place constantly, to continue to innovate, like what they did back in 1969 so as to meet the ever evolving needs of workers.
(Featured image via)