During the 1950s and 1960s, stormy labour relations in Singapore led to frequent strikes and became a major road-block to economic growth. Having mediated numerous disputes over his career, Mr Ong Yen Her is known and respected for his encyclopaedic knowledge of labour relations and his commitment to strengthening union-management cooperation and the tripartite partnership between unions, employers and the Government.

On the morning of 2 January 1986, 61 workers at the American oilfield equipment company Hydril staged a strike and picketed outside their factory in Tuas to protest against the firing of six branch union officials.

The workers had been dismissed for being unproductive, claimed Hydril’s management. But the union disputed this and maintained that the officials had been victimised.

Both parties were swiftly called to the conciliation table by the
Ministry of Labour. Mr Ong, then Director of Labour Relations, was the mediator. It was his very first conciliation effort involving a strike.

Talks began in the morning of the second day of the strike. The two parties were kept in separate rooms at the ministry while Mr Ong shuttled between them to reason, persuade and hammer out a deal. Past midnight, a settlement was finally reached – one union official would be reinstated while the other five would receive compensation. In return, the union called off the strike and the workers returned to work after the two-day work stoppage.

Sanctioned by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the Hydril strike was Singapore’s first in nine years. “Disputes between union and management should as far as possible be resolved amicably, and a strike should be a last resort, even though it is allowed under our laws,” says Mr Ong.

The crisis attracted intense public interest, even beyond Singapore’s shores. “Some employers were worried that other unions might follow suit,” recalls Mr Ong, “but this didn’t happen as the unions and management had established strong and cordial relations. This allowed our harmonious industrial relations climate to prevail.”

This was a far cry from the fiery labour disputes of the 1950s and 1960s, worsened by the announcement in 1967 that British military forces would withdraw from Singapore by the mid 1970s, causing the loss of thousands of jobs.

With the nation’s fledgling economy in the balance, the Government sought to persuade unionists to abandon their confrontational ways. The passing of two statutes in 1968 – the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act – were crucial to this effort. “With these Acts in place, the unions under the NTUC began working with employers and the Government to help create a better climate to attract investments and create jobs,” says Mr Ong. “If anyone had any disputes, we’d sit down and talk them out.”

Mr Ong joined the Ministry of Labour in 1974 as an Administrative Officer and was appointed Assistant Commissioner for Labour. He was seconded to the NTUC in 1979 as Assistant Director to oversee industrial relations of the newly restructured industrial unions. He was later appointed NTUC’s Secretary for Industrial Relations, in addition to serving as Executive Secretary for the Chemical Industries Employees’ Union and advisor to the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union and the Union of Telecoms Employees of Singapore.

In 1985, Mr Ong returned to the Ministry of Labour (now Manpower) as Director of Labour Relations and was later promoted to Divisional Director, Labour Relations and Workplaces. “At NTUC, I’d done negotiations and represented unions and workers on various employment issues, and got to know union leaders well,” he says. “My secondment to the labour movement enabled me to understand and appreciate the problems faced by workers, and I developed trust with union leaders at all levels. I was able to connect and work with them to help prevent and resolve disputes amicably, as well as to bring about union management cooperation and tripartite collaboration.”

For Mr Ong, a good mediator must know the issues well and understand the concerns of unions and employers. “A settlement has to be both reasonable and acceptable to all stakeholders,” he says. “Only then will it be amicable and create a win-win-win outcome for workers, employers and the economy.”

When talks get heated, a sense of humour helps. “Once, during an ex parte conciliation session with bank union leaders, I told them, ‘You might as well ask for the key to the bank’s strong-room, since you’re asking for so many things,’” Mr Ong recalls with a chuckle.

Retiring as Divisional Director of the Labour Relations and Workplaces Division, Mr Ong was re-employed in the same role until early 2012. For his contributions to labour relations and tripartism in Singapore, he received the Public Administration Medal (Gold) and the NTUC Distinguished Service Star Award.

Mr Ong is now Singapore’s Lead Negotiator for the Labour Chapter in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement. What kept him going in labour relations for 40 years?

Apart from the satisfaction of helping workers and businesses achieve win-win outcomes through the amicable settlement of disputes and by promoting industrial harmony, it was a sense of gratitude. Having come from a family of modest means, Mr Ong was able to study in Singapore with the help of an ASEAN Scholarship. “I’ve always felt strongly for our low income workers,” he says, “and that’s why I preferred to remain in the Ministry of Labour and now Manpower, rather than take on portfolios in other ministries.”

According to Mr Ong, unlike big countries which can shoulder serious industrial confrontations and still survive, a major strike in Singapore could ruin the economy. “As a small city-state without natural resources, Singapore depends on investments for economic growth and job creation,” he explains. “Our threshold for serious industrial disputes is low, and we must continue to preserve industrial harmony through collaboration, not confrontation.”