Right to reply……… How Lee Kuan settled pilots’ trade union action
Posted on August 13th, 2018

Dr Sarath Obeysekera

August 12, 2018, 9:07 pm

In 1980 there was a trade union action by pilots of Singapore Airlines. They were asking a 30 percent salary increase. Airline was in financial difficulties and could not agree to the demand of pilots. They were on a work-to-rule campaign, causing problems to the Airline’s reputation.The dispute was referred to the then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.

This how he has settled this unreasonable trade union action and the dispute.Lee Kuan Yew has said about the situation:”I can tell you that when I met the SIA pilots, I didn’t meet them on TV, I met them face-to-face. Five feet across the table so they can see me, and see whether I’m still vigorous, able to campaign and take them on. Whether it’s worth taking me on.

And I offered them two choices. Either you stop this intimidation, which is what it was, bringing SIA right down. Disrupting services, ruining its reputation.Millions of dollars worth of advertisements and sales ruined within a matter of two weeks.I gave them a choice. Continue this and I will by every means at my disposal teach you and get the people of Singapore to help me teach you a lesson you won’t forgetAnd I’m prepared to start all over again or stop it! Get back to work, restore discipline, then argue your case.

Took them 65 minutes and they decided ok it isn’t worth the fight.

Why? Because they know they’ll lose.They know that I’m prepared to ground the airline. They know that I can get the airline going again without them.

And let there be no mistakes about it. Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I spent a whole lifetime building this. And as long as I’m in charge, nobody’s going to knock it down.”

And with that, the matter with SIA was resolved. This is how Lee Kuan Yew handles unreasonable trade union disputes.

This is a good lesson for all of us.



Though I whole heatedly agree as an ex CEO of one of the important industrial establishments, there are few obstacles to immolate LKY in Sri Lankan context.

When I took over the helm of the CDL ( Colombo Dockyard ) in 1995 ,workers under a red banner ,were instigating against the Japanese Investors with various Reasonable Demands .Unless they  fulfil them , they were planning to go on strike. . .

In order to solve the issue I had to solve another major problem

Government has promised to give 10% of the CDL shares the workers, when they took over 51% of the shares of the company .A year has passed since privatization and promise was never fulfilled .Fist thing I managed to do was meet HE the President (At that time DB Wijethunge who called the BOC chairman and asked him to transfer the shares held by them to the company for distribution. It was done pronto and shares were given to workers. (Years gone by workers sold the shares!)

Company was functioning somewhat smoothly with new management imposing disciplines in the Yard trying also to appease the workers by giving extra facilities etc. . . .Union leaders were almost happy when one incident took place .I was walking in the yard early morning before the roll call and noted that some workers were still in the changing rooms not reporting to work at 7 30 am.Just few days before they were asking for a thumping salary increase with no justification ( in the back drop of company not having enough profits )  which I had to turn down .

During my walk I heard someone hooting form the changing  rooms and another person was standing on upper floor near a glass window exposing his crown Jewels to me ,hiding his face .( I shouted at him and said ,”you are showing something which  I also have but much better !

With all the genuine effort to bring back the company on to a sound footing by attracting more foreign ships to build and repair ,I was wondering what I should do with the deteriorating discipline .

Next day I shut the yard down and asked them to stay out of the yard for few days. .

These workers leave home telling the family that they are going to work in a prestigious company and shutting the yard generated a fear that they will lose their jobs. .

They returned to work after promising to behave well

After five years of peaceful work and company was generating enough money .I have them what we can afford.

Union did the same thing again.

I shut the yard down again.

Then Labour minister none other than ex -president MR called myself  and the union leaders and asked me to open the yard .I refused unless they sign a collective Agreement and also that  they will not resort to any more strikes .

I was arguing with the minister   ( a martial art expert !) .He was showing that he is taking the side of the workers ,but unnoticeably winked at me and started blasting me in front them .I started arguing again he and told me this exact words.

Do you want to fight with me? Come out- I am also a street fighter !!

Labour commissioner kicked me under the table and I had to shut my mouth.

Nevertheless with that trick he persuaded them to return to work.

(Workers came out thinking that the Ministry gave bellyful to the Managing Director.!)

Current leaders should have backbone to handle such situation fearlessly and with determination.

That is the lesson we should learn…………


Dr Sarath Obeysekera

One Response to “Right to reply……… How Lee Kuan settled pilots’ trade union action”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    The army should be multi-skilled to deliver essential services. Army medical student intake must be raised by reducing the intake of the medical college. What use it is for taxpayers producing Toronto doctors and local doctors who don’t work? It is better to produce more army doctors.

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