Call on Government leaders not to blindly transplant Japanese systems like the in-house unions under the ‘Look East’ policy without first understanding the real reasons for the Japanese economic miracle

1983 May Day Message by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, on 30.4.1983

Call on Government leaders not to blindly transplant Japanese systems like the in-house unions under the ‘Look East’ policy without first understanding the real reasons for the Japanese economic miracle

The 1983 May Day is probably the most important Labour Day since its official recognition as a public holiday in honour of the contribution of Malaysian workers to national development and progress. This is because the powers-that-be now seek to restructure the labour movement which would have far-reaching consequences for the role and place of labour in Malaysia in the coming decades.

Malaysian workers, in celebrating the 1983 May Day, must be fully conscious of this development, and must resolve to participate fully in the process of shaping their own destiny, instead of being passive recipients of the consequences of decisions which they have no part but which affect their entire future.

I am referring in particular to the proposal to introduce the Japanese system of in-house unions in Malaysia. Under the ‘Look East’ Policy enunciated by the Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, there appears to be a competition among government leaders as to who could propose and introduce things-Japanese to Malaysia, as a mark of his or her ability to respond to the ‘Look Japan’ call.

While nobody would dispute that Malaysia has a lot of things to learn from Japan, which after the defeat of the Second World War could perform the economic miracle to become the world’s fastest-moving economic nation, we must not blindly attempt to transplant Japanese systems like the in-house unions without first understanding the real reasons for the Japanese economic success, and secondly, Malaysia’s local conditions and suitability. Otherwise, there could be endings like heart transplant patients meeting their deaths because of rejection of the transplanted organs by the receiving system.

From the manner in which the Japanese in-house union system was purposed and discussed by the Government leaders, I cannot help getting the conclusion that the Government leaders had not yet made a full study of the whole question and its connection to Japanese economic success, but were one after another groping in the dark, step by step, encouraged by the feeling that they could not be too wrong as long as they are suggesting emulating the Japanese example.

Thus the first time Malaysian workers had any inkling that the Government was thinking about introducing the Japanese system of in-house unions came, not from the Minister of Labour, but from the Minister of Information in a off-the-cuff UMNO party talk in Jasin, Malacca on 23rd January 1983.

The Information Minister, Encik Adib Adam said that the Government was considering doing away with the present trade union set-up and replacing it with in-house unions aimed at safeguarding the interests of workers, employers and the nation, based on the pattern of the Japanese in-house trade unions.

Encik Adib said that with the implementation of the new system, trade unions would no longer be allowed to be affiliated with another body and the unions would fight for the cause of their individual members.

It is clear that the Government proposes to introduce the Japanese system of in-house unions, not as a result of the working of Malaysia Inc. style through full consultation and consensus among the government, management and labour, but as a diktat from the Government! This, of course, is completely antithetical to the concept of Malaysia Inc. promulgated by the Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed.

But what is even more shocking is the realization that the government intention to introduce the Japanese system of in-house union was taken without the knowledge or participation of the Ministry of Labour.

This is why when the Deputy Minister of Labour, Datuk Haji Zakaria Haji Abdul Rahman, was asked about Encik Adib Adam’s Jasin speech the very next day, Datuk Haji Zakaria made a categorical denial by declaring that the government had no intention to scrap the existing trade union set-up and replace it with the in-house union concept. Datuk Haji Zakaria said Encik Adib Adam’s statement was the Information Minister’s personal opinion, and that Encik Adib might have proposed the new concept in line with the Government’s Look East policy.

It was only after the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Musa Hitam, decided to end the unseemly spectacle of the Government’s right hand not knowing what its left hand is doing by declaring on January 25 that the Government was indeed studying the possibility of introducing in-house unions that the Labour Minister toed the line. But it took the Minister of Labour Datuk Mak Hon Kam some three months before he could recover from the shock that he was completely excluded from the idea of introducing the in-house union system into Malaysia, when it falls directly under his Ministerial responsibility, and it was not until April that he could sufficiently regain to talk about the virtues of the in-house union system!

But the contradictory reasons given by the government leaders on the virtues of the in-house union system shows that the various government leaders had not sufficiently thought through the whole question and relation of the in-house union system to Japanese economic success.

Thus Datuk Mak said at the opening of the seminar of the international Labour Organisation convention procedures and conditions of service in the public sector in Penang on April 4 that the in-house union concept would be a ‘catalyst’ towards accelerating industrial growth and expansion. The inference must be that national unions do not act as such as a catalyst, and that they should logically be replaced by in-house company unions, so that they would cease to retard economic growth.

Yet Datuk Mak and his deputy Minister keep saying that in-house unions are not new in Malaysia, that there are 169 unions of in-house nature in Malaysia. If this is the case, and having made so little impact, then there is something grossly inadequate in such in-house unions.

In his TV Malaysia interview in Lembaran Mingguan on 25th April, Datuk Mak said that through the in-house union, the employees would be consulted is matters pertaining to management, production and conditions of service. Could Datuk Mak point out of the 169 in-house unions already existing in Malaysia which are consulted in matters pertaining to ‘management and production’? I do not think Datuk Mak could give any answer, as it could only be in the negative. This shows the shallow thinking of government leaders like the Minister of Labour on issues like the in-house union system which they try to sell to the workers, just because it is the fashion of the day to do so!

The government leaders should realise that the primary cause of success of Japanese in-house unions is the Japanese worker’s loyalty to the company, which is the result of the reciprocal loyalty of the company to the worker in the form of guaranteed life-long employment and welfarism.

Without securing the consciousness and consent of the Malaysian employers to agree to provide the basis whereby worker-loyalty to the company in the Japanese fashion could be elicited, the Government leaders are either superficial in their understanding of Japanese models, or have political motivations to have a time and submissive labour force.

Before this government takes any unilateral action to import or transplant Japanese models which affect the future of Malaysian workers, the government must involve workers and employers in the true reasons of the Japanese economic miracle. For instance, there is widespread challenge by scholars on Japan that the phenomenal growth of the Japanese economy and industry could be attributed simply to the ‘Japanese work ethics’.

Unionization of Workers

One of the reasons which had been advanced for introducing in-house company unions is to help unionise workers who had not been organized. If the government is committed to a progressive programme for the unionization of unorganized workers, this reason would be more believable. I would call on the Government to respect the dignity and cause of labour in a more meaningful fashion than by just declaring May Day a public holiday by setting for itself a target to help in the progressive unionization of unorganized labour in the country. However, the Ministry of Labour’s obstructive attitude towards the organization of workers in the electronics industry does not indicate that the government would be prepared o commit itself to help in the organization of the non-unionised workers. This is a cause which had to be taken up by the labour movement itself.

Repeal of repressive labour laws

In recent years, the government had enacted repressive labour laws which hampered the freedom of organization of workers. The International Labour Organisation had condemned these laws as anti-labour, and I call on the Government to conform to international-accepted standards of labour legislation instead of priding itself for such anti-labour laws.

Review and increase of SOCSO benefits

The long delay of the Labour Ministry to review and increase SOCSO benefits show not only the inefficiency but also the insensitivity of the Labour Minister towards the plight and suffering of the poor.

SOCSO built up its assets from virtually nothing in 1971 to $360 million in 1981. In the first 10 years of its operation from 1971 to 1980, SOCSO collected $243 million in contributions but only paid out benefits worth $17 million to workers injured in industrial accidents and $6.5 million in medical expenses. This is scandalous, and the Labour Ministry must be censured for its failure to rectify such gross injustices.

Illegal Indonesian Immigrant Labour Survey – What happened?

Another area where the Ministry of Labour had failed is in checking the influx of illegal Indonesian immigrant labour. The labour Ministry announced that a comprehensive survey was being carried out on illegal Indonesian immigrant labour in 1981, but nothing has been heard to date is appears to be another favourite trick of the Government to ‘sweep things under the carpet’.

MAY DAY in Malaysia can only be meaningful if it is used by workers and labour leaders to review and take stock of the labour situation in the country, to perceive new problems and challenges, and commit themselves to a new resolve and dedication to give greater meaning to the dignity and worth of labour.