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31 Jan 2022
5 mins
The ‘Cruise to Nowhere’: Turning the Tides of Tripartite Relations

In a decade marked by economic crises, SMOU helped its members wrestle with unemployment and exploitative work practices with a new era of tripartism – captured in this second of an eight-part series that celebrates SMOU’s 70 illustrious years of history.

Against a recessionary backdrop and an unfavourable global environment in the 1970s, the Singapore government focused on lowering labour costs to continue attracting investments.

So competitive were wages that a German shipping company sought out Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) – culminating in the Union’s first foreign-going Collective Agreement (CA) inked in 1977.

The CA was a huge milestone, formally stating for the first time employee rights and benefits for SMOU members, such as wages, leave pay, bonuses, medical coverage, insurance, and compensation and benefits, among others.

Signing of collective agreement with Transocean Liners in 1977 – The first foreign-going CA

As word of the successful Transocean CA spread, more companies approached SMOU to negotiate agreements. As many as 800 maritime officers also joined the Union in the weeks that followed.

Rethinking relations

While SMOU’s job was to ensure members had access to safe working conditions and adequate pay, some companies believed that unionists were trying to make life difficult.

(News article from NTUC’s Labour News, published on 1 May 1979)

Kapal Management, a unit of Keppel Shipyard, was one company that staunchly resisted negotiating CAs with SMOU and the Singapore Organisation of Seamen (SOS) – until the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) boycotted its ship Kanuka Forest twice, first in Finland and later in Sweden in 1979.

(News article from NTUC’s Labour News, published in mid-April 1979)

When this happened, then NTUC Secretary-General Devan Nair issued the company an ultimatum: complete its CA negotiations or continue to face ITF-instigated action without any help from NTUC. He also refused to comply with Kapal’s demand that the NTUC secure the release of the Kanuka Forest before it inked the agreement.

Following countless negotiation rounds that ran into the wee hours, the pact was finally signed on April 10, 1979 – the day the ultimatum expired.

(News article from NTUC’s ‘The Singaporean’, published in mid-April 1981)
(Excerpt from Maritime Voices 1980 / vol.3)

 By the end of 1979, SMOU had inked at least 17 CAs. In April 1980, this figure climbed to 32. But one of them, a renewal agreement with Straits Shipping, almost did not happen.

To get them back on board, SMOU tried a different approach. It held informal meetings with a new style of collective bargaining. These lengthy meetings resulted in an agreement between the company and the Union on April 1, 1981, with $2 million in salary adjustments and welfare benefits for seafarers.

This incident made SMOU rethink how it ought to improve relations with shipping companies.

A Novel Idea

When then Straits Shipping General Manager Kong Chai Seng suggested the idea of chartering a ship for a “cruise to nowhere” for tripartite leaders, SMOU General Secretary Thomas Tay was immediately keen.  

This idea was unheard of. But a sea change was required to improve labour-management relations, which then labour chief Lim Chee Onn also recognised and gave the green light for the cruise.

“The nexus between the trade unions, the government and the employers – that’s the basis of tripartism right from the beginning. And that’s the difference between our trade unions and the trade unions of a lot of other countries. We are not at loggerheads all the time,” explained Lim.

An article published in ‘The Singaporean’, a publication of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) on September 1, 1981, titled “A cruise towards industrial harmony”, painted a rosy picture of the upcoming event:

The calm waters of the Malacca Straits and the plush surroundings of a cruise ship, M.V. Centaur, will form the backdrop of a historic industrial seminar organised by the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union.

The maritime officers, obviously not sea-sick, just want to sail off to “nowhere” so that they can peacefully sit down with employers at a round table to discuss ways and means to improve their work life.

With this in mind, the union has invited shipping employer representatives, and government and NTUC officials to the seminar, appropriately titled, Cruising Towards a New Maritime Industrial Relations Climate.

The three-day seminar from Dec 7 begins as soon as the cruise ship sets sail with the seminar participants and some family members.

This scenario came to life on the morning of December 7, 1981, as more than 200 people streamed into the M.V. Centaur.

On board the seminal cruise, speakers presented working papers across various topics. Mr Michael Chua, Director of Industrial Relations at the Labour Ministry, urged the Union and employers to hold more dialogues to foster trust and rapport.  

Captain Say Eng Sin of the Mercantile Marine Office, also known as the Marine Department, tackled the issue of job prospects, while Captain R.F. Short, Head of the Singapore Polytechnic’s Nautical Studies department, discussed training to meet the demands of a seafaring career.

Representing the employers, Mr Chung Chee Kit, Vice-Chairman of the Singapore National Shipowners’ Association, spoke on international issues that shipowners faced. On the other side, SMOU’s Tay raised industrial relations issues, including a suggestion to modify national service to make it easier for Singaporean men to pursue a career at sea.

At the end of the three-day cruise, recommendations were drawn up.

(News article from NTUC’s ‘The Singaporean’, published in 1 September 1981)

The cruise marked a massive turning point. It laid the groundwork for better industrial ties, with SMOU improving relations with stakeholders on all fronts – shipowners, the Marine Department, and NTUC.

After the cruise, SMOU signed its first CA with Neptune Orient Lines. The $4.6 million agreement with Singapore’s national carrier, one of the biggest names in global shipping, was also SMOU’s 50th CA. The funds went to ensuring wages increase and benefits for members, along with the provision of training opportunities, study leave and bonuses.

This was the start of a uniquely Singapore maritime brand of tripartism that continues to underpin SMOU’s progress today.