Article body

As the Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported on the passing of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when that latter Singaporean Prime Minister Yew warned that Australia would become the “poor white trash of Asia” unless it opened up its economy, the effect on future Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was clear. Mr Hawke held numerous summits at the start of his long, innovative and successful Prime Ministership, through which he gained a consensus between business leaders and unionists to reform and transform the Australian economy—through an ACCORD which lasted throughout the 1980s (cf John Kerin “Poor White Trash of Asia: A Phrase that Changed an Economy.” AFR, 25 March 2005.)

Given that I am an Australian reviewing this Singaporean book, I could not help but see the significance of that fact.

Oun Hean Loh’s book, Industrial Relations in Singapore: Practice and Perspective, is fascinating and well worth reading—particularly for Australians seeking an insight into one of the most vibrant economies in South East Asia but indeed anyone with the same preoccupation. What is particularly fascinating is the extent to which Singaporean law relies on consensus between government, employers, unions—and the fact unions do not necessarily play in Singapore the role they traditionally have in other nations, such as Australia.

I had a wry smile on my face as I read Foreword 1 (written by Lim Boon Heng), in which (p. vii) he recalls a visit to a country he does not name, but which had an extensive Labour Code, but still much industrial unrest and a lack of productivity. I wondered: Was he speaking of my homeland or not? I also recalled a conversation I had with a number of Westerners who live in Singapore and on being asked by me about the nature of Singapore labour law exclaimed: “What law?”

This book is not a sit-down novel, but rather a resource one would read gradually or as required for specific information. Likewise, there will always be debate (from a Western perspective) about Singaporean labour law—whether it (or part of it) is a model for others to follow, or whether there is a paucity of law. Especially, I benefitted from the discussion of: enterprise unions (Chapter Two) and trade union accountability (Chapter Three as well as Chapter Twenty Two on responsible unionism); tripartite mediation for non-union employees (Chapter Thirteen); and the ageing population (Chapter Fifteen on the changing retirement age). In short, I do recommend this book and I am glad to add it to my own library.

In concluding, Singapore’s story is one of evolution from colonial backwater to economic powerhouse. How the labour relationships of the city-state evolved (uniquely in many senses) throughout that journey constitutes both a genuine interest and important development for us all to appreciate.