At the most fundamental level, employment relationship involves monetary exchange where there is contract between an employer and employee to obtain the output of employee’s ability to work. (Balnave et al. 2007) This relationship can often result in either dispute or collaboration within an organization. More often than not, the different aspects of the nature of employment relationship tend to likely generate conflicts between the employers and employees.
The focus would be on industrial conflict, which from time to time occurs between managers and workers, the classification of conflicts and what are some of the theories which describes the situation of industrial conflicts in Singapore.
As defined by Komhauser et al., industrial conflict is ‘the total range of behaviours and attitudes that express opposition and divergent orientations between industrial owners and managers, on the one hand, and working people and their organisations on the other hand’ (1954,13).
Singapore is generally noted as a peaceful country with minimal industrial conflicts. This mainly attributed to the presence of strict regulations against overt conflicts as stated in the requirements of ‘restrictions on strikes and lock-outs’ (Attorney General Chambers 2009).
The presence of mediation or conciliation channel also assisted in the resolution of concerning issues. Conflicts are seen to be complicated and in Singapore, some causes or outline that are governed by theories of Industrialisation, Institutionalisation, Political, Economic and Social factors. More of these would be looked into further in this essay.
Overt and Covert Conflicts
Opposing behaviours and attitudes can be classified into 2 categories, namely overt conflict and covert conflict. According to Petzall et al. (2007), overt conflicts are conflicts which are planned and joint by two or more persons, thus observable by the public. Examples of such conflicts include strikes, lockouts, work to rule where employees perform only duties which are indicated in their contracts, political demonstrations and many more. Petzall et al. (2007) also mentioned that covert conflicts are conflicts which are unplanned, concerns individual and hence less observable by the public. Examples would include absenteeism, work sabotage, job-hopping where people change jobs to get better pay or pursue their personal interest as well as low work efficiency. Covert conflict is seen to prevail over overt conflict in terms of the financial losses of a business.
In Singapore’s context, it would be considered illegal to have overt conflicts due to the existing strict criminal law stated in Attorney General Chambers (2009) Despite the fact that there were strict laws to adhere to, there are several channels such as Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC), Case Trust, Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and more, where individuals could approach to resolve certain conflicts they experienced.
For example, Sharon (2011) reported on a case of disagreement between SIA and SilkAir pilots and their company over their flight payment. The issue was referred to Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) where the judge proposed that the company could have constant observation of the flight schedule to make sure there is fair payouts distribution. In this scenario, IAC had acted as a conciliator.
The reduction of conflict in Singapore is also due to tripartism, wage reform and labour legislation. In tripartism, there is involvement of managers, employees and ‘other systems such as political, social, economic, technological, cultural and legal systems’ (Tan 2007, p.27). These parties would resolve matters in a diplomatic manner.
The establishment of National Wage Council (NWC) brings about tripartism where workers’ wages are evaluated and wage reform, where there is flexibility in the wage payouts, was introduced. Tan (2004) mentioned that the benefits were studied and it was found that having flexibility enables organizations to make swift modifications to their cost computation during economic variations so as to be cost competitive. Organisations also could reduce wages during difficult time and give incentive in better times which assisted in allowing workers to stay in their job. The introduction of Employment Act also played a major role in providing regulations on the conditions of work.
The use of frames of reference is a necessary and essential tool to better identify a person’s view and actions on employment relations. Fox recognized three frames of reference, namely the unitarist, pluralist and radical frames. (McCourt W.;Eldridge D.,2003)
The underlying theory of this perspective is that ‘employment relationship is based on mutual cooperation and a harmony of interest between employers and employees’ (Balnave et al. 2007, p.10) In this circumstances, the targets and objectives of the organisation are universal. Management is viewed as the only authority and managers see their power to make independent decisions of their business without being hindered by government, workers or unions. Trade unions are not embraced and are considered as interference to the harmony of the organisation. The presence of industrial conflict is regarded as having poor management or failure to lead effectively. As a result of this perception, the various interests between the management and labour were not recognised.
In this approach, conflicts are regarded as unavoidable. It recognises that organisations are made up of cluster of individuals with their own goals, interests and direction. (Balnave et al. 2007, p.11) To prevent damage of diverse interest, measures and regulations have to be in place and use, leading to the ‘institutionalisation of conflict’. This ensures that there is equal distribution of power amongst stakeholders. Trade unions are welcome as it permits employees to have a say in what concerns them in their organisation.
Singapore can be seen to have more of a pluralist approach from the formation of NTUC which consists of representative of employees. These representatives are given the opportunity to voice and negotiate over the terms and condition of their employment and their opinions are also taken into consideration in the management’s decisions. NTUC branch representatives also involve themselves in collective bargaining where feedback could effectively be gathered on concerning issues. On the other hand, another trade union known as Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) was also set up to represent the employers’ interest.
It consists of a wider scope as compared to unitarist and pluralist viewpoint. This perception involves society being segmented into different status where there is unfair allocation of power between those who has financial capabilities and those who can only offer their labour. The status difference caused the incompatibility between employers and employees. (Balnave et al. 2007, p.11)
Singapore Industrial Relations System
Anantaraman (1990) suggested that Singapore’s economy is made up of industrial relations system and production system. Both systems are in reliant of one another as the consequences of the industrial relations system would result in the contribution of the production system.
Industrialisation has often been associated with industrial conflict. Ross and Hartman (1960) mentioned that the type of strikes of a particular country is connected to the country’s industrial relation system. This theory maps out four patterns, namely North European (type 1), North European (type 2), Mediterranean/Asian and North American.
Singapore could probably be classified under North European (type 1) where the government has been actively engaging its interest in the economy of Singapore. There have been continuous efforts by the government to attract more and more foreign talent. Ramesh (2011) quoted what former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said that, ‘Singapore would not be able to punch above its own weight if it were to depend on talent from its own population’.
As technology progresses, the stress placed on workers for major scale and non-stop productions increases the likelihood of industrial conflict. (Woodward 1958) This again could be due to Marxist perspective where workers with lower status could only provide their labour output as they do not have any capital and those who has the capital would maximise these labour’s output for high profits.
Wright Mills (1948) recognised that there are four phases where institutionalisation is related to the pattern of conflict. The first phase is where trade unions are against the negotiation prerogative of businesses and the focus is on individuals. It is unplanned and can be aggressive.
The second phase involves businesses restructuring themselves into associations to oppose the rising authority of trade unions. As a result, the bargaining outline became more national and industry based, converting conflicts into a more organised manner. Third phase went on to become an effective mediating stage while the trade unions’ viewpoints are overruled diplomatically in the fourth phase.
At the last phase, trade unions developed tactics to advance into institutions, involving the workers to be part of the economy. They also engage themselves in conflict resolution and labour contracts. For the case of Singapore, NTUC has been strengthening ties with other businesses and unions such as National Taxi Association, Cathay Cineplexes Food & Drinks Allied Workers’ Union and Housing and Development Board Staff Union. NTUC has also been participating enthusiastically in collective bargaining assembly. Ciegg (1976) also mentioned that the more thorough the difference of opinion reconciled with collective bargaining, the lesser strikes would occur.
According to Wright Mills (1948), trade unions and business associations are formed to counteract each other. This led to the nation’s participation where trade unions becomes engage in politics and in turn affects the government policies.
Conflict is determined by the sharing of political power distribution. Singapore’s trade union has a unique relationship with the government, People’s Action Party (PAP) as most of the members within PAP used to be part of the union. Halimah Yacob being the Deputy Secretary General of NTUC and a Minister would attend cabinet conference and address worker’s issues. As such, this helped in the reduction of conflicts. It is cited by Korpi and Shalev (1979) that the greater admittance to the government contributes to lesser occurrence of conflict.
As indicated by Paldham and Pederson (1982), the changing models of conflicts are due to adjustments of wage present in variety of workers. It is researched by Smith et al. (1978) that there are four factors namely amount of income, labour concentration, organisation size and dominance of women in workforce determine the differences in conflict. Those who earn high income in Singapore vie for better income. There is also a significant increase in women joining the workforce according to statistics produced. (Ministry of Manpower 2011)
Notwithstanding to economic factors, social factors also play a part in ensuring minimal conflict. Mayo (1933) explained that while worker’s economic needs are met and the social needs are not met, there would be high possibility of conflict and presence of low spirits in the workplace. One aspect of social needs would consist of communication. NTUC promotes its dedication to be one which has open communications in the workplace, free from prejudice regardless of any type of individuals.
Several theories have been discussed pertaining to the causes of industrial conflict. There are many more theories surrounding the area of industrial conflict and it differs in different countries depending on the industrial systems and the governance present. It would be impossible for a country or any organization not to have any conflicts. However, Singapore can be considered successful in handling overt conflicts as shown through the legislation in place and also a variety of mediation or conciliation bodies such as NTUC, IAC or MOM which are available for different employees or employers to approach. Finally, there has to be active listening and pro-activeness by the government on dealing with the burning issues occurring constantly as time progress so that conflicts can remain manageable.
Anantaraman, V. 1900, Singapore Industrial Relations System, Linographic Services Pte Ltd, Singapore
Attorney General Chambers, 2009, Illegal Strikes And Lock-outs in Essential Services, Singapore, viewed 18 February 2012,
Balnave,N., Brown,J., Maconachie,G. and Stone,R. 2007, Employment relations in Australia, John Wiley and Sons, Milton, Qld
Ministry of Manpower. 2011, Singapore Workforce, 2011, MRSD, Singapore, viewed 20 February 2012,
Petzall, S, Abbott, K and Timo, N, 2007, Australian industrial relations in an Asian context, 3rd ed, Eruditions Publishing, Cowes Victoria
Ramesh, S. 2011, ‘S’pore cannot do without foreign talent: Ex-MM Lee’, 22 July, viewed 18 February 2012,
Sharon, S. 2011, ‘IAC rejects pilots’ proposal on flight allowance’, 21 October, viewed 23 February 2012,
Tan Soo San 2004, Wage Reform And Tripartism: A Test of Trust at Work, Centre for Governance And Leadership, Singapore, viewed 25 February 2012,