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Koo Tsai Kee: The veteran unionist on trust, triumphs and tripartism

The May Day Award recipient is feted for his work with many unions over the past 30 years.

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By Nicolette Yeo 24 May 2023
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Koo Tsai Kee is a familiar face in the Labour Movement, having been an advisor to many unions over the past 30 years.

His foray into union work was initiated in 1991 by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), where Mr Koo was a Member of Parliament.

He became an NTUC director in 1993. The unions he served included the United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI), Singapore Port Workers Union (SPWU), and Singapore Industrial & Services Employees’ Union (SISEU), as well as the SIA group of unions.

Mr Koo also advised the Singapore Government Shorthand Writers’ Association, whose members included personal assistants of top civil servants, judges, and political office holders. The association was dissolved when shorthand writers’ services were no longer required.

As a union advisor, he shared his valuable expertise, experience, and advice with union officials.

Mr Koo’s most notable contribution was to shape UWEEI’s direction during its formative years. As the union’s executive secretary (ES) between 1993 and 1997, he introduced ISO standards to enhance operational efficiency and structure. UWEEI is the only union to have this accreditation.

The union’s improved operational processes today are a testament to the foundation he laid even though the ISO standards were discontinued in recent years.

As UWEEI’s trustee and advisor, a role he holds today, he grew the union’s assets substantially over the years to support its members and meet their diverse needs more effectively.

The veteran union advisor is also a board director of the Temasek Foundation and has been the key nexus between Temasek and the unions.

Mr Koo received the Distinguished Service Award at May Day Awards 2023 for his contributions.

NTUC: As a former MP, how did your political thinking influence your union work?

Koo Tsai Kee: I used to live in Spottiswoode Park, an HDB estate in Tanjong Pagar, before I became an MP. I knew many of my neighbours were PSA workers and staff. Mr Lee Kuan Yew told me that as their local MPs, it was our job to look after their lives and livelihoods. In fact, I learnt that Mr Lee built Spottiswoode Park and Everton Park so PSA workers could live near the Tanjong Pagar PSA terminals.

In the early days, there was no MRT; bus routes were few and not frequent. The port never sleeps, and port workers had difficulty getting to PSA. The HDB flats in Tanjong Pagar solved their problems.   

How did you champion workers’ interests as a politician and unionist?

As a labour MP, I had a dual role. The first was to look after the lives and livelihoods of my residents in Tanjong Pagar GRC. The second was to ensure that the labour laws protect workers’ rights.

As ES of UWEEI, one perennial issue then was to convince MNCs to allow workers the right to form a branch union under UWEEI.  Many MNCs frowned on workers forming unions because of bad experiences in their native countries. Our job was to convince MNCs that unions in Singapore were of a different breed.

What early issues did you have to deal with at UWEEI?

During my time, the electrical and electronics industry was a major employer of workers. However, MNCs came and went. When a company left, there were issues of retrenchment payments, retraining, etc. UWEEI also had to constantly recruit new members so they could be protected. 

Some MNCs introduced 12-hour work shifts. It was a big change because workers were working eight-hour shifts. Workers resisted the 12-hour shifts, especially those who worked the night shifts. It took a lot of convincing to get them to work four hours longer every day. UWEEI also ensured that management looked after the welfare of the night-shift workers and [gave] appropriate compensation for rest and pay. Slowly, workers came to accept the new working hours, and many welcomed it because the hours suited their lifestyle.

Why did you introduce ISO standards to UWEEI?

In the early 90s, some MNCs did not have a favourable view of UWEEI. They thought UWEEI was a clone of the war-mongering distant cousins in their native countries. UWEEI companies were some of the most advanced companies in the world. We wanted to tell them that UWEEI was a modern professional service organisation not unlike their manufacturing companies. We did not do things at the whims and fancies of belligerent union leaders. Rather, we had documented and transparent work processes which were published and audited. 

Members benefited knowing that when UWEEI negotiated collective agreements (CAs) or represented them in welfare or grievance handling, there was a due process to follow. Management also knew the rights, limits, and processes for union negotiations.

Could you also share your notable experiences of working with other unions?

I have had a long relationship with SPWU. PSA underwent a painful restructuring and had to retrench many workers when they lost two key customers ―Evergreen and Maersk. The unions, both SPWU and Port Officers’ Union, and management worked together to minimise the pain. Today, PSA is stronger because of that shared experience.  

PSA is wholly owned by Temasek International, a caring investor. It keeps a pulse on the labour-management relationships of all its portfolio companies without being intrusive. I feel privileged to be able to gain the trust of both the unions and Temasek portfolio companies.

How has the role of unions evolved over the years? How does this impact the role of current and future generations of union leaders?

In the past, the unions’ main role was to get a good CA, look after workers’ welfare and handle complaints and grievances. Today, union leaders must do them all and help to retrain, upgrade, and transform workers to become future workers in the future economy.   

The challenges of every generation are different. These challenges have become more formidable.  Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s advice still rings true [when facing] the greatest challenge every generation of union leaders must learn to gain the trust of the workers. Skills, technology, and knowledge can be learned and acquired. Trust cannot be learned or acquired; it must be earned.

What lessons have you learnt from your Labour Movement experience?

Working with the unions has always been a pleasure even if it was sometimes difficult. Trust is something I have learnt must be earned. When there is trust, the difficulties can be managed. When I joined NTUC, Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote me a note, and said, “You have to earn workers’ trust. Once they trust you, they will not go against you even if they do not agree with you”.

The peace, prosperity, and tranquillity we enjoy today is due to the work of the NTUC, the unions and the Labour Movement. Behind closed doors, issues are resolved. Because the Labour Movement works quietly, the public and management sometimes take this industrial peace for granted.


To appreciate the good work of the Labour Movement, we only need to look elsewhere like in the UK. There is now mayhem on the streets. Doctors, nurses, train drivers, postal workers, civil servants, paramedics, teachers, university professors, barristers, airport workers, and other [workers] have been on strike. People must check their strike calendar to see which trains are on strike like they check the weather every day.

I am very grateful to be given opportunities to be associated with the unions; it has enriched my life. I treasure the deep friendships I have made with many of the union leaders. We have become forever friends.  

What are your thoughts on tripartism and its role today?

Tripartism is the cornerstone of Singapore’s economic miracle. The UK was looking to Singapore as a political-economic model for its post-Brexit transformation. Politicians there were hoping to emulate the Singapore model, which has been held up as what the UK could be. The dream of the UK as a ‘Singapore on steroids’ economy remains eternal. They name it the ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ model. The key to this model is tripartism. 

Read his full citation here.

Here is the list of all 128 individuals receiving the May Day Awards 2023.