World, meet SMOU and tripartism

  • Post published:28 February 2023

As the Union celebrates its 70th anniversary, find out how it flies the nation’s flag and promotes Singapore’s unique brand of tripartism in the penultimate chapter of an eight-part series.

One phone call was what led SMOU to make history.

It all started one Saturday evening in 2016 when Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), rang SMOU General Secretary Mary Liew from London with a bold proposal: Why not have the Union host the 2018 ITF Congress in Singapore?

That was how more than 2,000 participants from over 600 transport unions and 150 countries descended on Singapore’s Suntec City Convention Centre for a week in October 2018. It marked not just the largest attendance in the history of the ITF Congress, but also the first time it was being held in Southeast Asia.

Set up in 1896, ITF is a global union federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. The Congress, held every four years, is the Federation’s core event where top decisions are made and key positions filled.

The event turned out to be a great success, burnishing not just the international reputation of SMOU and the National Coordinating Committees (NCC) which Ms Mary Liew is the chairperson of, but that of Singapore as well. Just as Singapore has advanced rapidly from Third World to First, SMOU, too, has grown from a ragtag outfit of 50 members to a modern organisation of thousands that commands respect on the global stage.

Going global

With Liew chairing the ITF Singapore national coordinating committee, the 2018 ITF Congress saw watershed motions being passed and leaders elected to chart the course for transport workers worldwide.

SMOU’s standing in ITF was reinforced when Liew was elected as its Vice President – the first woman VP from Asia-Pacific. Affectionately known by ITF comrades as the “Tiger of Asia”, Emeritus GS Thomas Tay, who was the former Executive Board member and the First Vice Chairman of the ITF Seafarers’ Section in Asia, gave SMOU another reason to celebrate when he was awarded the ITF Gold Award, the Federation’s highest honour. This was the first award that Mr Thomas Tay was awarded by the ITF.

To top it off, Young SMOU Chairman Dominic Yong was also elected into the ITF youth committee to represent the Asia Pacific region, assuring the Union of a continued voice in the international body. 

Ong Yen Her, who was National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Secretary for Industrial Relations and an adviser to SMOU in the 1980s, credits SMOU with putting Singapore on the maritime map through its dealings with ITF, elevating the local sector by establishing itself as a trustworthy and effective advocate.

“The contributions of the Union to industrial relations, to international relations, to the whole industry and economy, are very significant. It’s very clear. And always underappreciated. People ignore or don’t really pay attention to our relationships with the international organisations, but it’s very important, particularly in this (maritime) area,” said Ong.

Besides advancing Singapore’s interests, SMOU also plays an unofficial mediating role in ITF when there are member disputes. For example, when an Asian country’s shipping federations had disagreements among themselves, it was Singapore and SMOU that offered to broker peace, rallying other neutral affiliates to hold dialogues.

Opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian ITF office in Singapore

The Union has drawn wide respect with such collaborative approaches. In a testament to its good relations with Singapore, ITF opened its Southeast Asian Sub Regional Office here in September 2017 at Chin Swee Road. Singapore was chosen for its good infrastructure, connectivity to the rest of the world and stable political-legal environment.

There was another key reason. Cotton said at the office’s opening ceremony: “In Singapore, the tripartite approach to labour negotiations is really working and we want to explore how we could apply that method successfully elsewhere.”

What is Singapore’s secret?

The quest for tripartism

Singapore’s entourage at ITF meetings had always raised eyebrows. How, foreign delegates would wonder, could the NTUC Secretary- General be a government minister pushing for the same interests as a union leader? Would they not be seated at opposite ends of the table with different agendas?

However, the success story of Singapore speaks for itself. With the advice and support of NTUC, unions such as SMOU have thrived, achieving internal reform by developing cooperatives and gaining international gravitas.

Snippet of the MITT from the Sea Transport Industry Transformation Map (ITM) Refresh 2022 video (MPA)
MOU signing between Tripartite partners at the TNTA 10th Anniversary in 2019

Collaboration between unions, employers, and the government gives Singapore a vital edge, boosting the country’s economic competitiveness while promoting harmonious labour-management relations.

However, the different parties don’t always see eye to eye. Tripartism is a work in progress. It started with the seminal “Cruise to Nowhere” in 1981, which brought together the different tripartite parties – SMOU, NTUC, shipping companies, and the Marine Department (the predecessor of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore) – for the first time. Tripartite relations improved further with golf games in the 1990s, which continue today.

Annual Company Union Rapport Exercise (CURE) Golf event organised in 2022

Tripartism in the maritime industry has grown steadily. Today, international audiences are no longer puzzled when they see SMOU’s prowess at the negotiating table, backed by NTUC. Instead of questioning how tripartism could work, they now ask: Why not?