Lee Kuan Yew: Prime Minister who told striking pilots 'I'll teach you a lesson you won't forget'

Lee Kuan Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore. He died aged 91 on March 23, 2015. [Courtesy of BBC]

In November 1980, pilots of Singapore Airlines had threatened to paralyse activities at the country’s leading airport Changi and other facilities across the nation.

They were demanding a 30 per cent increment to their basic salaries and an improvement of their welfare.

Their industrial action did not take the form of complete shunning of duty, but a bare minimum approach to their contracts.

The approach was called work-to-rule, meaning employees don’t work more than the hours stated in their employment contracts, essentially targeted at reducing output and efficiency.

The Singapore Airlines Pilots' Association (SIAPA) industrial action notice to its members saw many pilots put in a maximum of 12 flight hours daily.

On November 16, 1980, Singapore Airlines pilots and a flight engineer disrupted their Dubai to London flight during their stopover in Zurich, Switzerland in support of the work-to-rule proposal.

All the technical crew involved in disrupting the SIA flight were sacked and charged in court for carrying out the illegal strike.

Despite this decision, the industrial action persisted and air travel in Singapore had taken a beating.

Things were getting thick by the day, and the Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was losing his cool as there was no end in sight.

On December 1, 1980 Prime Minister Yew summoned the Singapore Airlines pilots to his famous office, Istana. His agenda was one: to go hard on them such that they’d have no choice but to return to work.

What happened during the meeting has been told to subsequent generations, and will be republished for years to come.

Around that time, Singapore was facing a general election on December 23, 1980, preceded by party nominations on December 13.

During a political campaign rally, which came after his meeting with the Singapore Airlines pilots, Prime Minister Yew recounted the tough options that he gave the pilots that saw them resume work without further push for higher pay.

Below is a transcript of Yew’s documented narration on what happened during his meeting with the striking pilots:

“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. 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! Get back to work, restore discipline, then argue your case.

“The meeting took 65 minutes and they decided: ‘Okay, 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.”

That’s how Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew resolved the issue of pilots’ strike in Singapore in 1980.

Yew was Singapore’s first Prime Minister and founding father. He died on March 23, 2015 at the age of 91.

The now-deceased premier oversaw the tiny city-state’s rapid rise from a British colonial backwater to a global trade and financial centre.

Yew, a British-educated lawyer, was credited with building Singapore into one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis with a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.

Singapore got independence on August 9, 1965.

Kenya pilots’ strike

A pilots’ strike is underway in Kenya, similar to that of Singapore in 1980.

The Kenya industrial action started on Saturday, November 5, 2022.

Pilots of the national carrier, Kenya Airways (KQ), are demanding that KQ restarts contributions to its staff pension fund that was stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the payment of all salaries that were accrued at the time.

The KQ pension scheme needs at least Sh1.3 billion ($10.1 million) annually, with pilots taking home the largest chunk of the kitty – Sh700 million ($5.9 million) – which is equivalent to 53.8 per cent of the funds.

The KQ pilots also want the airline’s board and executives removed, citing governance issues.

The Kenyan government, through Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen, is saying that the pilots’ demands are unrealistic, given the current economic hardship that the country is facing.

Murkomen, just like former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, accused the pilots of testing the limits of the government.

The pilots, however, through their union the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA), said its 400 members that work for KQ downed tools for valid reasons, and not to test the new administration’s patience.

“We’re ready to resume work even today, so long as our grievances are addressed,” said KALPA Secretary-General Captain Murithi Nyagah.

“There could be a notion out there that we’re striking to test the limits of the new government, whose reign began just the other day. That is not the case. We have grievances that have been unaddressed for far too long. KALPA believes it’s now time to have them resolved once and for all,” said Captain Nyagah.

The government said on Saturday that more than 10,000 passengers were stranded and over 15 planes grounded due to the strike.

Transport CS Murkomen approximated the daily losses in revenue to be Sh300 million ($2.52 million).

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