Mixed Up in Power Politics and the Cold War: The Americans, the ICFTU and Singapore's Labour Movement, 1955-1960

By Long, S. R. Joey | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Mixed Up in Power Politics and the Cold War: The Americans, the ICFTU and Singapore's Labour Movement, 1955-1960


Long, S. R. Joey, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The Cold War divided not only international politics, but also contributed to the polarisation of the international labour movement. Created in 1945 by unions from countries such as the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) had originally aspired to unite and advance the international labour movement's cause. As Cold War tensions escalated, however, policy disagreements and opposing ideological beliefs combined to eventually split the institution, resulting in pro-western unions leaving the WFTU to found the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949. (1) Backing and working with the ICFTU, Washington acted thereafter to advance the cause of 'free labour' across the globe. (2) Among the many places where the United States intervened was Singapore. The episode has not been extensively examined. This article is an attempt to illuminate the American involvement in Singapore's labour affairs during the 1950s.

No work has studied the subject in detail. Leong Yee Fong has explored the rivalry for influence between the competing labour internationals and their backers in Malaya. The contest prompted the colonial authorities to implement policies that sought to circumscribe the influence of the pro-communist WFTU and the Malayan Communist Party on Malaya's workers. Leong's article, however, contains little focused discussion on the situation in Singapore. Also unanalysed is the specific nature of the respective Soviet and American support for the endeavours of the WFTU and ICFTU on the island. (3) If Leong neglects the Singapore side of the story, another historian has attempted to document the operations of the ICFTU on the island. Yeo Kim Wah notes the arrival of ICFTU officials in Singapore in 1950 and accentuates their plan to encourage the establishment of a confederation of noncommunist labour unions that could 'counter an expected offensive by the World Federation of Trade Unions in all colonial territories'. Yeo, however, does not develop the story into the late 1950s and makes no mention of American assistance to local non-communist unions through the ICFTU. (4) Unlike Yeo and Leong, another scholar has offered some insight into the American attempt to use the ICFTU to strengthen Singapore's non-communist unions. Jim Baker notes that 'the ICFTU funneled support to Lim Yew Hock's Trade Union Congress in the hope of stemming the leftward shift of the trade union movement'. (5) But Baker gives only fleeting attention to the American undertaking, providing no additional details on how the support was carried out. Baker's work, while laudable, also does not make extensive use of American or other archival materials to detail US government activities on the island. Nor does he examine the British and local responses to the American endeavours.

Indeed, little is known about the role that external actors such as the Americans played in Singapore's labour affairs. Scholars who have studied the history of Singapore's labour movement during the 1950s typically set it within a narrow national context. The actors are local. They are nationalists, political opportunists or subversives. And the examination of trade unionism characteristically rests on uncritical assumptions about the ideological inclination of the labour institutions and their constituencies. Conventional wisdom thus holds that labour groups of similar ideological proclivities invariably flocked together; these groups also supported the political parties that shared their assumed politics. In generating such institutional narratives, the writers expound on the politics of the unions but give short shrift to the history of the Singaporean worker or unionist. A narrow political perspective of the labour movement is thus obtained in such works. (6)

Bucking conventional trends and informed by new approaches in social history, another group of scholars has begun to pay more attention to the unionists and workers, making them the object of investigation rather than their institutions. …

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