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‘Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him’: How Lee Kuan Yew brought an end to pilots’ protest in Singapore Airlines

"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," Lee Kuan Yew had said.

In the light of the ongoing farmers’ protest in India, where farmers have dug their heels in even after the central government’s proposal to suspend the farm bills for 1.5 years, demanding nothing more than a complete and irreversible rollback of the laws, it is worth revisiting how the legendary Singaporean politician Lee Kuan Yew tackled the crisis bedevilling the Singapore Airlines in 1980.

About 4 decades ago, the Singapore Airlines(SIA) was in dire straits and its reputation had taken a severe beating. Profits were at an all-time low, the airlines had got entangled in a fight with the pilot’s union, and allegations were levelled against it for meting out improper treatment to its passengers in the wake of a strike by Australian refuellers.

SIA’s pilot union launched an illegal work-to-rule industrial action that triggered the crisis

The primary reason that fuelled the crisis was the dispute with the pilots’ union. The dispute took place because the Singapore Airlines Pilots’ Association(SIAPA) demanded a 30 per cent hike in the basic salaries and better working conditions. In order to make its demand felt, the pilots’ union launched the illegal work-to-rule industrial action.

A work-to-rule industrial action meant that the employees did only bare minimum work that was mentioned in their employment contracts. The action was taken to basically reduce efficiency and thereby affect the overall output. After this action was launched, a flight from London to Dubai was disrupted when three SIA pilots and a flight engineer refused to work beyond their 12-hour duty during their stopover at Zurich on November 16, 1980.

All the technical crew involved in disrupting the Dubai-bound flight were terminated by the SIA and charged in the court for carrying out the illegal industrial action. The crisis was reaching a crescendo and a definitive action was needed to put an end to the festering problem.

As SIA and SIAPA locked horns in what seemed to be an unresolvable conflict, the then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew decided to grasp the nettle and end the ongoing dispute. On 1 December 1980, SIAPA representatives were summoned to Lee’s office at the Istana for a meeting. What transpired in the meeting has become a stuff of legend, recounted by Lee himself during a General Elections rally a few days later.

Former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew resolves the festering dispute within the SIA

In the rally, Lee revealed that he met with the key SIAPA leaders in person and made them realise that he is still vigorous and capable of campaigning and taking on them. Lee’s iron will and his determination to take the bull by the horn forced the SIAPA leaders to wonder whether it was worth continuing the fight. Lee made it amply clear in his negotiation with the SIAPA members that he is not amongst those who would be blackmailed by the union into submitting to their demands.

“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,” Lee said.

Source: YouTube

Lee stated that he gave them two choices —whether to continue the agitation—or get back to work and then the government can have a discussion over their demands. He made it clear to them that he was prepared to ground the airlines and teach them a lesson if they continue with their illegal work-to-rule industrial action.

“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 forget. And I’m prepared to start all over again or stop it,” Lee said.

He further added, “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 the SIAPA was resolved.

Farmers’ Union reject government’s proposal of suspending the three farm laws

A day after the government of India’s proposal to defer the new farm laws for the period of 1.5 years, in exchange for ending the ongoing the protests by some farmer unions, mostly from Punjab, the unions have rejected the proposal. The decision was taken in a meeting of the protesting farmer unions today, saying that they only want the repeal of the laws.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, after the meeting to discuss the union govt proposal, said that they are sticking with demands for full repeal of the three farm laws, and a law ensuring Minimum Support Price (MSP) on farm produces. The Morcha said that they are not accepting the proposal to merely putting the laws on hold for 1-1.5 years. The unions are expected to officially convey the decision during the next round of meetings scheduled for tomorrow.

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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