OPINION: Singapore’s Remarkable Transformation

Vincent Lobendhan was a Minister in the Sitiveni Rabuka SVT Government. He holds a Graduate Diploma in Industrial Relations (Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand). Certificate in Industrial Advocacy (Clyde
08 Jul 2015 13:12
OPINION: Singapore’s Remarkable Transformation
The Father of Modern Day Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew.

Vincent Lobendhan was a Minister in the Sitiveni Rabuka SVT Government. He holds a Graduate Diploma in Industrial Relations (Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand). Certificate in Industrial Advocacy (Clyde Cameron College, Albury, Victoria, Australia), Certificate in the Training of Trade Unions Trainers (Clyde Cameron College, Albury, Victoria, Australia).


From a Sandbar to a CleanBustling Metropolis, thanks to former leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew. There are lessons that Fiji can learn from the Singapore experience. Lee Kuan Yew inspired his people with strategies based on imagination, ingenuity and common sense.

The great majority of world nations fail or have failed economically because their leaders have ignored the lessons of history. Greed and selfishness of such leaders added to the problems that citizens of such countries faced or continue to face today.

The media in Fiji has commented positively about the need for Fiji to emulate Singapore and the manner in which that small Asian nation was transformed from a third world to a first world economy in one generation- 1965 – 2000. Fiji’s Prime Minister, Finance Minister and other Ministers have also been referring to the vibrant and robust Singapore economy from time to time.

Singapore’s former leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew was a British-trained lawyer who was described as follows by former French President, Jaques Chirac- 1995 – 2007.

“Lee Kuan Yew has gathered around himself the most brilliant minds, transforming the most exacting standards into a system of government.

“Under his leadership, the primacy of the general interest, the cult of education, work and saving, and the capacity to foresee the needs of his city state have enabled Singapore to take what I call “shortcuts to progress” (Jaques Chirac, 2000)

This description of Singapore’s outstanding former leader needs to be seriously considered by Fiji leaders, and politicians.

No present government politician has so far stated what achievement values Fiji First’s government policies are based on. People wonder why there is silence on this question. Maybe bureaucrats are uncertain about the need for sound policies based on achievement values.

Lee Kuan Yew inspired his people with strategies based on imagination, ingenuity and common sense when he introduced the following issues:-

  • Get the basics right
  • Make haste, slowly
  • Go it alone
  • Surviving without a hinterland – no land holdings available
  • Creating a financial Centre
  • Winning over the unions
  • A fair, not welfare society
  • Nurturing and attracting talent
  • Keeping the government clean
  • Greening Singapore
  • Be conductor of an orchestra
  • Japan: Asia’s first Miracle
  • Lessons from Japan
  • Deng Xiaoping’s China – Mao Tae Tung communist economic policies were failing.


Singapore’s concentration

Along with the other so-called Asian Tigers, Singapore concentrated on getting the economic fundamentals right – encouraging savings and investment, keeping inflation and taxes low and currencies stable, and emphasizing high-quality education.

These and other strategies were put to his people via public addresses in an invigorating and inspiring manner. He was always particular in choosing the right tone and language when speaking.

This was always followed by action to win society support for his announced new ideas and policies or reviewed existing policies.

Some of Fiji’s constraining business related policies saw it drop eight places on the recent World Bank ratings for “the ease of establishing and doing business”. Not a positive development for Fiji.

During the period 1965 – 2000 when Singapore’s amazing economic and social transformation occurred, much credit was owed to employers including many large multinational corporations who moved their Asia – Pacific head offices and operations to Singapore.


Lee Kuan Yew’s visible outcome of his efforts led to Singapore becoming:

  • A top world financial center
  • The world’s busiest seaport
  • A top location for investment


Singapore’s Rating as an attractive business Centre:

  • One of the world’s top most five profitable countries despite having no natural resources
  • World’s most competitive country
  • The least corrupt country in Asia
  • Lowest political/ economic risk in Asia
  • The best and easiest place to establish a business – Current World Bank Rating.


Tripartism: Singapore 1965 – 2000


Employer’s Role

The role of employers and employer organizations was critical in the development of Singapore as a nation during the last 3 – 4 decades of the 20th century because employers’ views during that time were:-



  • Consultative and cooperative approach to human resource management and industrial relations issues
  • Help formulate national policies and guidelines to deal with issues and future challenges
  • Partnership enhances Singapore’s competitive business environment.


-Legal framework-

  • Harmonious labor- management relations
  • Positive tripartite culture
  • Governments pro- business attitude
  • Effective implementation of laws


-Strike Free-

  • From 1978 – 1985
  • Except one strike by 61 workers over 2 days in 1986
  • From then till now, none of note


How has Tripartism worked for Singapore Employers?

  • National Wages Council Guidelines, 1972 till today and Wage Reform
  • Promotion of Flexible Wages
  • Guidelines on union membership
  • Review of labor laws
  • Guidelines on shift allowance payments
  • Back to work program


Challenges of Tripartism

  • Pro- active legal framework
  • Ageworkforce issues
  • Employability of older workers
  • Flexible wage benefits
  • Job creation


Principles of Wage Increases

  • Total wage increase should reflect the performance of the national economy
  • Built in wage increase should lag behind productivity growth rates
  • Variable payments (including bonuses) should reflect closely to the performance of individual companies

These are some of the major principles, issues and strategies adopted by Singapore employers after they signed the formal tripartite Charter on 15 January, 1965.

The Fiji government needs to take the lead in formulating a Fiji Tripartite Declaration or agreement but so far no signals along these lines have been noticed.It is interesting to note that after Singapore’s third election in the late 1960’s, the Prime Minister later wrote:

“We believed in socialism, in fair shares for all. Later we learned that personal motivation and personal rewards are essential for a productive economy.

“However, because people are unequal in their abilities, if performance and rewards are determined, by the marketplace, there will be a few big winners, many medium winners and a considerable number of losers. That would make for social tensions because of society’s sense of fairness is offended”.

It is unfortunate that although the Rabuka government was actively working on the formulation of a new draft legal framework (New labor law) in the late 90’s. Circumstances in May, 1999 saw their demise. Workers and consumers are still disadvantaged. There is no emerging growth into an age where decent wages could be paid.

On 19 May, 2012 the Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum reported in a Fiji Sun statement on the following:

“The government has maintained its stands on its non – discrimination policy……

The Attorney-General, said the Bainimarama government has put in place measures to ensure that there was no discrimination between one group and another: one Fijian and another. Every Fijian is treated equally under the law”.

In view of this legal opinion made public in 2012, how is it that price flexibility and wage inflexibility are allowed to prevail in our country?

In Singapore, real wages and savings are adjusted every year since 1972 because wage and savings dollar value changes with inflation and other factors. Central Provident Fund savings are also reviewed each year and adjusted to whenever necessary.

Recent media announcements about some businesses and state owned enterprises paying bonuses to staff should never be regarded as fully justified payments in total. Their real wage or salary needs to be adjusted annually to be fair to workers.

In Singapore, I was told by officials that should their government ever have to devalue the Singapore dollar; wages, salaries, and Central Provident Fund of Singapore will adjust each member’s savings to maintain their value. After the 1987 coup and again in the late 1990’s, there were two devaluations of 15% and 10% respectively.

On 1 April, 2010 the Bainimarama government devalued the Fiji dollar by 20%. Have any adjustments taken place to restore this total devaluation of 45% since May 1987? I have heard this question being asked on a number of different occasions.

I hope that at this time, people will give some thought to issues that affect society’s sense of fairness.

These are the type of issues one would expect to read from Labor Ministry officials. They need to note that in Singapore the review of labor laws are being deliberated on in a Tripartite Forum first before the recommendations go to Cabinet for endorsement – then to Parliament afterward for enactment.


Tripartism – its benefits for Singapore

  • Achieve desirable economic transformation and social objectives
  • Share business gains during good times and pains during bad times to help regain cost competitiveness
  • Achieve industrial harmony, productive workplace environment and an investment climate conducive for rapid economic growth and job creation.

I feel sure that Fiji workers, fair minded employers and a concerned government would support these benefits.

To conclude, no model of tripartism can be replicated. The trust, respect, and confidence which are fundamentals of successful tripartism have to be worked on, built upon and owned. Unless these fundamentals exist, tripartism will not function well. For these fundamentals to function well, appropriate governance structures and respect for the rule of law, addressing issues such as that of corruption, must be in place. Singapore’s sophisticated tripartite model is unique and may not be easily replicable wholesale. However, there are elements of its success which can be replicated or adapted to specific national contexts.

Feedback: gabriellalobendahn@gmail.com


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