The Role of Workers in the Second Malaysia Plan

Speech by DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Melaka, Mr. Lim Kit Siang, at a forum organized by the Kuala Lumpur Branch of the National Union of Bank Employees held at NUBE Headquarters at Jalan Ampang on Wednesday, 15th December 1971 at 7.30 p.m.

The Role of Workers in the Second Malaysia Plan

Before we discuss the role of workers in the Second Malaysia Plan, we should first find out what is the government’s attitude as to the role of workers in the Second Malaysia Plan.

It is always wise to judge a person or government by his action rather than by his words.

It is no coincidence that a few days after Parliament adopted the Second Malaysia Plan, the Government amended the 1959 Trade Unions Act and the 1967 Industrial Relations Act to chop away more of the few remaining rights of workers and unions, so much so that the existence of trade unions in the country seemed redundant and irrelevant.

These amendments made permanent the restrictive and anti-labour provisions of the 1969 Essential Regulations which, among other things, prohibited trade unionists from holding political office; banned strikes while the question of union recognition is pending; excluded from negotiation matters relating to conditions of service, such as promotions, transfers, filling vacancies, termination of service due to redundancy or reorganisation; and further concentration of powers in the hands of the Minister of Labour, who is not known for his labour sympathies, to have the final say in questions of union organisation, dismissal issues, etc. which are all calculated to cripple trade unions and undermine the interest of workers.

It is clear therefore that the Government regarded legislative measures to ensure a weak, ineffective and emasculated trade union movement and docile, submissive and cowed work-force as one of the pre-conditions for the successful implementation of the Second Malaysia Plan.

The Second Malaysia Plan was drawn up without consultation with workers’ interests. It is a plan which does not accord any rightful place to workers in the economic development of the country.

I said in the July session of Parliament that the Government’s policy is to ensure that there is an unlimited pool of cheap and docile labour for exploitation by the capitalists.

Docility is achieved by the host of anti-labour laws and measures, on which I will have more to say later.

Cheapness of labour is achieved by the alarming magnitude of unemployment in the country.


According to the government, there are 275,000 unemployed. It can safely be assumed that the true unemployment figure is very much higher.

Over the last five years, during the duration of the First Malaysia Plan, unemployment has worsened greatly. When the First Malaysia Plan was launched in 1965, the government announced that by 1970, the government would reduce the rate of unemployment of 6% of the labour force to 5.2%. In actual fact, in 1970, the unemployment rate has shot up to 9%. The First Malaysia Plan, therefore, has succeeded increasing the unemployment in the country.

Similarly, the Second Malaysia Plan will not be able to reduce unemployment. In fact, the Plan envisages that the unemployment figure will increase to 325,000 by 1975, assuming the Plan succeeds in its objectives. Many Malaysians, including economists, have voiced their doubts as to the government’s target in job creation. If the Second Malaysia Plan falls short of expectation, then the unemployment figure will be even greater.

Employers, of course, are happy about the high rate of unemployment. With high unemployment, labour possesses little scarcity value, and thus little bargaining power, which is itself another cause of labour docility.

Workers should therefore understand the context they are in when discussing their role in Malaysian economic development.

Workers’ Role

In my view, the role of workers in the Second Malaysia Plan are two:

1. to contribute to nation-building, by helping to create a Malaysian consciousness out of the diverse races and take part in the economic development of the country.

2. to achieve for the working class a more equitable distribution of income and opportunities so that they cease to be exploited, and can take their full and rightful place in national life.

Whether Malaysian workers and the labour movement can perform the first role will depend on their ability to achieve the second task. This, in turn, is dependent on the ability of the working class to be organized into a united, disciplined, powerful and effective movement, capable of fully discharging its responsibilities and defending its rights.

It is pointless to talk about the role of the workers and the labour movement in the Second Malaysia Plan or in any economic development if the workers are not organised into an effective force, which can be hard and respected, and which can be harnessed to a national purpose. If the workers are weak, divided, ineffective, then they have no role at all, apart from being exploited.

In other words, the workers and the labour movement in Malaysia must first set their own house in order, before they can help in setting the national house in order.

I do not think anyone, including trade union leaders, will claim that the workers in Malaysia are organised into a united, disciplined, powerful and effective movement.

In fact, Malaysian trade unionism is facing a grave crisis. In its entire history, there had always been many more men and women outside the trade unions than inside them. Trade unions have never succeeded in organising more than 15% of the total work force in the country.

Trade union membership has fallen badly. According to the figures given by the Registrar of Trade Unions himself, the total union membership in benefit at the end of last year was 274,600. Six years ago in 1964, the total union membership in benefit was 323,000.

Mr. K.G.George, the Registrar of Trade Unions, must have spoken with his tongue in cheek when he wrote in his latest RTU Report for 1970:

“There are signs that the workers are increasingly aware of the advantages that trade unions can bring forth in employment security and proper working conditions and as a result, more and more trade unions are being formed to cater for the needs and aspirations of the unorganised workers.”

The shocking conclusion is that from 1965 to 1970, during the operation of the First Malaysia Plan, the trade union movement has failed, not only to increase the percentage of organised workers, in the work force, it has also failed to unionise workers in proportion to the increase of the work force. In fact, while from 1965 to 1970, the work force has increased from 2,590,000 to 2,940,000, total trade union membership in benefit has dwindled from 328,000 in 1965 to 274,600 in 1970.

In other words, from 1965 – 1970, while the work force has increased by 13% trade union membership has decreased by 16%.

The Government’s generally anti-labour bias, with its host of anti-labour laws, must be blamed for the mounting disinterest of Malaysian workers in trade unionism, and the crisis in trade unionism.

The labour movement, however, cannot escape responsibility. There would obviously have been more organized workers if unions could prove that they could not only adequately protect the legitimate interests of their members, but also give them additional benefits in exchange for their dues and support.

The main causes of the weakness, ineffectiveness and general impotence of the labour movement are:

1. An anti-labour government which enacts increasingly restrictive and anti-labour laws;
2. Ineffective trade union leadership;
3. Multiplicity of trade unions.

1. An anti-labour government

The worker’s viewpoint and interests is not represented in the Cabinet. You have landlords, tycoons, businessmen and the members of the upper class in the Cabinet, but there is not a single member who has any trade union experience or association.

I do not think it is necessary here to go into the iniquities of the anti-labour laws which the Government has passed, which allows flagrant victimisation, intimidation and dismissal of workers who try to organise; permit employers to dismiss employees on grounds of retrenchment; virtual prohibition of the final constitutional weapon of workers to strike; growing replacement of permanent staff by cheap contract labour; and the great difficulties put in the way of unions seeking recognition.

The utter indifference and even contempt for the fate of workers was illustrated in an incident in Parliament yesterday. I had asked the government to give annual figures of the number of workers retrenched from rubber estates and rubber-processing factories. The Assistant Minister of Labour and Manpower, Mr. Lee San Choon, blithely replied that the government does not have such figures.

We know that from 1962 to 1970, about 80,000 workers, nearly 30% of the rubber estate work force, were retrenched from this sector alone, working out to about 10,000 workers thrown out of work every year. Yet we have the Assistant Minister of Labour and Manpower standing up in Parliament declaring his ignorance and unconcern of the matter.

With every passing year, the government is enacting more and more restrictive, oppressive and anti-labour laws. The only way workers can undo all these anti-labour legislation is to send their representatives into Parliament to battle for their legitimate rights, and release the workers form bondage.

It is most obnoxious that the government has prohibited trade unionists from holding political office, as it is an attempt stifle the political expression of the grievances and demands of the workers.

No measures, I submit, demonstrates more eloquently the inherent anti-labour character of the Alliance government.

2. Ineffective trade union leadership

Although the government is anti-labour, and has teamed up with the moneyed interests to exploit workers, the working class, if well organised into a united, disciplined and effective movement, can make great strides to establish a more equitable society in the teeth of opposition from the feudalists and capitalists.

To do this, there must be a sincere, dedicated, militant and far-sighted leadership, which has the capability to draw up and execute a long-term plan to organise and advance the interest of labour.

Thus, I feel it is a great mistake on the part of the labour movement, in particular the co-ordinating centre, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, to hardly concern itself with the problem of the unorganised workers. As a result, we have a situation as I mentioned earlier where total organised membership has dropped.

Let me make it clear that I am not trying to run down the MTUC leadership or any other labour leadership. I am concerned about the ineffectiveness of the labour movement, and I would like to see it strong and grow stronger. It is in this spirit that I am giving my views.

I will give a few examples to illustrate my statement that the trade union movement is ineffective, because of its own weaknesses.

(i) Lack of militancy, and tendency to make empty threats. If one makes empty threats too often, then one will cease to be taken seriously, and one’s credibility offers.

When the 1967 Industrial Relations Act was passed, the MTUC thundered that it would leave no stone unturned to oppose its anti-labour provisions, which had been transferred from the 1965 Emergency laws.

When the 1969 Emergency Regulations were introduced, the MTUC pounced on the Labour Minister’s assurance that the measures would be temporary, and adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

When the government made known its decision to make permanent most of the provisions of the 1969 Emergency Regulations, the MTUC announced the formation of a 19-strong National Committee for the Restoration of Trade Union Rights on February 14, 1971, which would be empowered to do, among other things:

i. publicise trade union views about the existing labour laws to Members of Parliament, community leaders, and others;

ii. organise mass meetings and protest rallies throughout the country;

iii. boycott all government functions as well as refuse invitations to Ministers and government officials to union functions; and

iv. launch other forms of protest action as ‘work to rule’ and mass application for leave and prayers.

On July 26, the Government passed the amending legislations to make permanent the provisions in the 1969 Emergency regulations, and there was not a squeak from the fearsome MTUC National Committee for the Restoration of Trade Union Rights. I did not even receive a single circular or publicity material from the committee opposing the government proposals.

(ii) MAY DAY. The MTUC has from the beginning called for May Day to be made a public holiday to honour workers’ contribution to society. This is commendable. But May Day is not just a matter of government declaring it a public holiday. It must be a day celebrated by the workers as their Day.

In 1968, the MTUC held a May Day Rally at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and we still remember the embarrassment all round when the newspapers came out with photographs of a three-quarter empty hall.

If all these years, the MTUC had succeeded instilling into the affiliate unions and membership the importance of May Day, and had it celebrated by all unions throughout the country, even if the government persists in refusing to recognise it, it would take on the character of a national holiday. The government may then be forced to recognise a fait accompli.

iii. MTUC Candidates

In 1969, the MTUC adopted six Parliamentary and seven State candidates in return for their ‘pledge and undertaking to uphold and work in their individual capacity for the attainment of goals embodied in the MTUC’s Workers’ Charter.’

One of the successful MTUC candidates is Inche Musa bin Hitam, M. P. for Segamat Utara. In the July Parliamentary debate on the amending legialtions to the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Unions Act, Inche Musa did not speak in opposition to them. In fact, he was the Deputy Alliance Whip to get the Alliance M. P. to vote the amending legislations through.

Did Inche Musa Hitam really pledge to uphold the goal embodied in the MTUC’s Workers’ Charter? If so, since he had failed to do so, is the MTUC proposing to repudiate its endorsement?

This case is interesting in that it highlights the vacillation, inconsistency and ineffectiveness of the MTUC.

3. Multiplicity of Unions

The Labour Minister is proud to say that it has been the government’s policy to ‘encourage the growth of sound and responsible trade unions.’ The tree must be known by its fruits, and the Government’s trade union policy must be judged by the fruits of that policy. The government must bear responsibility therefore for the multiplicity of peanut unions. However, trade union leaders themselves could have co-operated to reduce this multiplicity in the interest of great labour solidarity and strength.

If this multiplicity is not rationalized, trade union movement in Malaysia will continue to be weak.


I have so far spoken only about what I see as the weakness of trade unions in Malaysia, because I feel that unless this weakness of trade unions is overcome, it cannot really play any role in Second Malaysia Plan.

My views on what role labour unions should play, when it has set its house in order, is better left, probably, to another occasion.

Finally, to sum up, I believe that the way to develop a strong, organised, powerful trade union movement, which is capable of taking on an anti-labour government, is:

1. A dedicated, sincere, militant, far-sighted trade union leadership.
2. Organisation of the unorganized.
3. Integration of the multitude of peanut unions into more rational, and more effective, unions.