Not by Wages Alone, by Devan Nair

Transcribed by Jess C Scott from Not By Wages Alone (Selected Speeches and Writings of Devan Nair, 1959-1981).

A shorter version is available on Jess’s blog.

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“Not by Wages Alone — Reflections on the Elimination of Strife in Industry” (30 September 1972)

by Devan Nair (Address at the Opening of the Union House of the Singapore Bank Employees’ Union)


Mr. Devan Nair bidding farewell to NTUC staff members in 1981, the year he became President. — ST FILE PHOTO

This is a proud day for bank employees. Your Union has come into possession of its own building. Other trade unions have also sent their representatives to share in your rejoicing. No doubt there will be a lot of mutual back-slapping when the opening ceremony is over, and the beverages with which you toast each other at the reception will engender an euphoric glow in your nervous systems. But there is a bit too much of artificial euphoria in our Republic, what with the seeming economic boom, annual wage supplements, Wages Council recommendations, and so on and so forth.

I find, however, that a glance at the future, a contemplation of the various possibilities and prospects, pleasant and unpleasant, for this small nation of ours, which the future might hold, serves to exercise a sobering effect. I therefore propose to share with you, on this occasion, some of the thoughts and reflections which have occurred to me as a trade unionist and a citizen, trying to envision a possibly better future from the standpoint of the present.

One finds little illumination in this task from the concepts which have come down to us from the past. Indeed, I will confess that conventional trade union speeches and writings, slogans and concepts, often bore me to the point of tears. They are so supremely irrelevant to our actual needs. A little reflection will show why this is so.

The survival of a small nation state like Singapore depends on the degree to which we achieve integration at all levels — national integration of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups; educational and social integration so that each individual feels part of the national larger community; integration of development efforts involving the tripartite association of Government, entrepreneurs and labour. All this is generally acknowledged, at least in theory. It is admitted that the rugged society will not get very far unless is develops at the same time as an integral society.

A study of our present system of industrial relations discloses, however, more possibilities of disintegration than of integration. In fact, we must talk not of one system of concepts, but of several systems, depending on whether the management is British, American, Japanese, German, Australian or local. For wide variations exist in the concepts of industrial relations and personnel management which the different investors bring to bear in the operation of their separate undertakings. Our own industrial laws provide no more than a bare skeletal framework within which a whole variety of differing concepts attempt to operate.

The industrial climate which prevails in Britain today provides perhaps the most vivid illustration of the tragedy of industrial morals in the modern western system of the labour market. Any industrial system in which the constitution of the enterprise is based, not on the concept of the development of a working community of management and workers, but on notions of “them” and “us” in perpetual confrontation and strife, can only have the end-result that we see in Britain.

It might be said of British trade unions that their basic attitudes and concepts were fathered, not by the intrinsic nature of the British working class, but by the nature of British employers themselves. In short, the egotism of British employers has engendered the egotism of the British worker. And taken together, these conflicting egotisms constitute a social disaster for the British nation. As one critical observer of the British industrial scene remarked:

“Every dragon gives birth to a St. George who slays it. And St. George himself must collapse on the corpse of the slain dragon.”

Let me quote a British writer, Mr. Folkert Wilken, on the subject. He says:

“It is an inveterate evil of the traditional structure of trade unions, that in order to exist they must struggle to recruit members, and to make membership appear in the most attractive light. They are therefore under constant compulsion to prove the necessity of their existence. They have to institute periodic and militant proceedings for increased wages and shorter hours. By doing this, they are appealing to the egotistic interests of the workers. Thus, they never appeal to the social ideals dormant in the workers. They cannot, for they do not consider it their duty to further such ideals, and have no clear picture of the practical realisation of these ideals. They therefore wish to persevere in their war for higher wages and less work. To these aims they owed their birth, a hundred years ago. But then, those aims were justified by the conditions of the time, as they are always justified when there is capitalistic exploitation of labour.”

The virus of the British industrial disease is also latent in Singapore and could develop a malignant potency in future years, if our social thinkers and planners do not give thought to the development of corrective and remedial measures.

Many of the industrial aberrations in Britain proceed from current notions of the labour market. Conflicts of interest, rather than community of work, are the inevitable result when relations between managements and workers are based on these current notions. The worker’s skill of muscle and brain is, according to these notions, regarded as no more and no less than a commodity in the market, just like any other purchasable commodity. Now, if you regard the wage motive as the sole motivation that a worker is capable of, then it stands to reason that he will try and conform to your expectation. There will be no place in his thinking for solidarity of interests with the enterprise he works in, for pride of achievement, for job satisfaction and other satisfactions. If the commercialism of the labour market treats the worker as a mercenary, then a mercenary he inevitably becomes. He is indifferent as to whether the business for which eh works prospers or runs into difficulties. He does not even feel any unity with the company which has bought his services. He demands that the company shall give him as high a wage as possible, and grant as short hours as possible. His trade union supports him, because it has accepted the commercialisation of labour as a fiat accompli.

It is clearly necessary for us in Singapore, employers as well as trade unions, to try and avoid a repetition of the British experience here. Our government too would not relish the idea of being reduced into a helpless referee, like the British Government has apparently been — endlessly buffeted and held to ransom by one side or the other, or both. So we must ask ourselves whether it is not worth our while to replace notions and concepts of industrial relations which have proved themselves to be disastrous in practice elsewhere. Would it be possible, for example, to regard and develop, both entrepreneurs and workers in an enterprise, as a community of work, rather than as a field of clashing interests and perpetual strife? I think it is possible, given the fact that Singapore is already a melting pot of British, American, Japanese, German and local concepts, and given Singapore’s capacity for experiment and innovation.

Singaporeans must be their own forerunners in this particular field. But we will not be altogether alone in trying to put industrial relations on sounder foundations. Enlightened entrepreneurs elsewhere, keen to eliminate strikes and strife in industry through the associative organisation of their enterprises, have experimented, with varying degrees of success, to formulate new concepts of working relations in their undertakings. The most notable of such experiments have been by the Staedtler, Carl Zeiss, Robert Bosch, Gert Spindler and Rexroth undertakings in West Germany, and the John Lewis and Scott-Bader enterprises in England. Not all the concepts of these enterprises, includign their ideas on what they call “the neutralization of capital,” would be practicable or applicable in the Singapore situation, but some of the methods and approaches they have employed are certainly worth our interest.

If our object is an integral society, then we must strive for an integral system of industrial relations in which entrepreneurs and workers see themselves in a new light, as parts of a larger whole, and are bound together by a functional solidarity leading to a productive as well as psychological interdependence. This will call for worker education as well as management education. The National Productivity Board could play a significant role in this process.

We might now enquire into some of the chief factors involved in transforming a bi-polarised enterprise into a dynamic and co-operative community of work.

One obvious factor is a wage structure which the worker feels is justly and fairly related to his skill and performance, and represents an equitable distribution of income in the enterprise. I know of undertakings which possess a good system for the computation of wages based on performance, but the managements of which have not taken the trouble to acquaint the workers with the “how” and the “why” of the system. As a consequence, the workers are resentful about seemingly arbitrary variations in their monthly wage packets. It is clearly useful that when managements do the right things, they should take pains not to hide their light under a bushel.

One may expect wages and salaries, however, to be increasingly determined in future years on the basis of general guidelines laid down by the National Wages Council, having regard to the performance and the growth rate of the national economy as a whole. This should help to remove fears that incomes of workers in the Republic do not keep pace with economic growth and capacity.

The next factor is one which has received far less attention than it deserves. For wages and salaries are not the sole determinants of either the quality of production or of the quality of our society. The worker has a right not only to a decent wage. He has also a right to expect, and a civilised society owes this to him, that his work will provide him with satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment. To regard the worker as nothing more than a wage slave enhances neither productivity nor the quality of our society. It merely diminishes the one and depraves the other.

We therefore come to the development of non-wage incentives, proceeding from the conscious promotion and inculcation of pride in workmanship, of job satisfaction and of a sense of personal and group fulfilment in the work done. Such promotion is heavily dependent on the psychological atmosphere and climate prevailing at the work-site. Far too often we have the authoritarian organisation of work-relations. Production supervisors conceive of their role as bullying drill-sergeants rather than as respected captains of production teams. Whenever you hear of a spontaneous mass work-stoppage somewhere, nine times out of ten you can trace the cause to poor quality middle-management personnel. A wise organisation of work-relations on the factory floor will utilise available techniques to imbue workers with a sense of individual and collective responsibility for work performance and for the quality of the product. The intelligent use of Works Councils and similar institutions to achieve this end should be resorted to far more extensively than is done at present. The initial hurdle blocking their introduction seems to be that many managements and workers are too conservative to consider such innovations on the work-site. They prefer the primitive bi-polar pattern of the paymaster at one end, the wage slave at the other, and a bully of a supervisor in the middle. In this atmosphere, it is not difficult to see why the vital sense of partnership in production is conspicuously absent in many production sites.

The present concept of industrial relations is also reflected in prevailing notions of personnel management. Very often, the personnel manager of an enterprise is regarded by the manage-workers as the management’s hired prize-fighter, paid to tell them lies and to hit them below the belt if necessary.

Many personnel managers have no specific qualifications for the job, apart from a cursory acquaintance with local labour laws and collective bargaining procedures, which some of them at least acquired as former trade unionists. The theory seems to be that an ex-trade unionist is uniquely fitted to fix the trade unions.

There is an urgent need to deepen and to widen the role and function of personnel management in the Republic, if we are to move on to more sophisticated and civilised patterns of industrial relations. The successful personnel manager is one who can steer both management and workers to a shared sense of partnership in production, and is able to promote a sense of loyalty and of belonging to the enterprise on the part of the workers and of genuine concern for the progress of the undertaking as a whole. It stands to reason that only those trained and qualified in the theory and practice of enlightened personnel management can discharge such responsibilities in an adequate manner. A qualified personnel manager would also deserve a far higher status in the policy-making board of his enterprise, instead of being regarded, as is the case in several enterprises at the moment, as a glorified errand boy or the hatchet man of the management.

Finally, if employers have a transformed role in an integral society, so have trade unions. Looking at the British scene, we know the responsibility of employers and trade unions for the disintegrating society. But what kind of role and function do we see for trade unions in an integral society?

At present, because the worker is regarded as little more than a commodity on the market the unspoken ideal of most trade unions, both here and elsewhere, is to get as much as possible for less and less work. With the transformed functioning of an enterprise, however, when the worker is regarded as a vital and organic part of the undertaking and not as a wage slave, his trade union develops a dual role and function. First, the trade union would be directly active, in order to ensure that the payment for performance is correctly based and graded. Second, the trade union undertakes its rightful social function, cooperatively representing the workers, in the sense of taking responsibility for the workers’ performance.

Under the present system, trade unions concern themselves only with payment, and hardly ever with performance. But in an enterprise which is a cooperative working community, the trade union assumes responsibility for performance as well. The improved industrial climate and the higher productivity which is bound to ensue in such a situation will be something quite beyond the reach of the old tribe of bullying drill-sergeant supervisors, whose only measurable achievements are man-hours lost, and not man-hours gained.

This two-fold function of the unions — responsibility for work and supervision of wages — would necessitate that all workers belong to unions. Anyone who did not want to would suffer all the social and natural disadvantages resulting from his non-participation. He would be an outsider, and this would contradict the communal spirit of labour. And from the point of view of the unions’ communal responsibility for work-performance, it becomes reasonable for the unions to demand a “solidarity subscription” from non-members, who share the advantages provided by unions.

I would submit that efforts to develop every enterprise as a successful working community is worth the most serious consideration on a tripartite basis, if Singapore is to avoid the industrial aberrations which increasingly plague developed societies in the western world. The integral society of the future which we envisage will be anything but integral if sound industrial relations, based on sound industrial psychology and practice, are left out of account by our Government, our employers and our trade unions. If desirable changes for the better are to take place in our present system and concepts of industrial relations, we require to have our forerunners to scout the possibilities of improvements in the future. And Singaporeans, as I said earlier, must be their own forerunners into the future.

C.V. Devan Nair, in Not By Wages Alone (Speech: 30 September 1972)


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