DPM Heng Swee Keat at May Day Rally 2019

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 1 May 2019

Keynote address by DPM and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, titled “Our Commitment To Tripartism”, at May Day Rally 2019 at D’Marquee in Downtown East on 1 May 2019.


Prime Minister, Brother Lee Hsien Loong and Sister Ho Ching, Senior Minister, Brother Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Emeritus Senior Minister, Brother Goh Chok Tong, NTUC President, Sister Mary Liew, NTUC Secretary-General, Brother Ng Chee Meng, brothers and sisters, a very happy May Day to all! I am very honoured to be here with all of you this morning.

PAP and the Labour Movement: Partners in Struggle, Building a Nation

The Labour Movement has always been the PAP’s most important partner. Our ties go all the way back – to the post-war years, before either “PAP” or “NTUC” even existed! Now you may be wondering why. Well, Mr Lee Kuan Yew began his political career as a lawyer representing the postal workers’ union. He won them a wage increase and better terms of service from the colonial government. By the time the PAP was formed in 1954, Mr Lee was legal adviser to more than 100 unions and associations. Many other founding members of the PAP were unionists.

Unionists knew they had to enter politics to fight for better lives for workers; and politicians knew they had to mobilise workers if they were to have a mass base. After the PAP was elected to office in 1959, it tried to revitalise the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), to become the unifying body for trade unions in Singapore. The effort failed, for there were both communists and non-communists in the STUC. When the PAP split in July 1961 – with the pro-communists leaving to form Barisan Sosialis – the STUC also broke apart. The unions supporting the PAP formed the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). And the unions supporting the Barisan Sosialis formed the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).

SATU commanded the overwhelming share of the unions – 82 to NTUC’s 27. But the PAP prevailed in the political struggle against the Barisan. And as a result, the NTUC too prevailed in the battle for the hearts and minds of workers. The heated political struggle of the 1960s was the crucible that forged the close bonds between the PAP and NTUC. As the founding Secretary-General of the NTUC Devan Nair said, the PAP and NTUC “were two wings of the same political movement”. It was a close, symbiotic relationship from the beginning. 

If such a relationship had not been forged, we might not have weathered the early crises or industrialised so rapidly. In the early years of our independence, we were faced with the harsh realities of surviving and growing our economy without a hinterland. The British military withdrawal from Singapore, first announced in 1967, further sharpened our existential crisis. 

Faced with the threat of massive job losses, the Government had to decisively welcome investors, industrialise and create jobs. We had to make tough choices that went against the grain of conventional wisdom at that time – for example, inviting MNCs to invest here even as others were turning them away. The unions too had to evolve. They were no longer just the mass base in the anti-colonial movement. We had to build a new nation, and unionists too had to become nation builders. This was why the NTUC organised its Modernisation Seminar in 1969, 50 years ago this year.

The 1969 Modernisation Seminar: A Key Turning Point

It was a landmark event in the history of not only NTUC but also of Singapore. If the labour movement had not transformed itself in the 1970s, it would have become irrelevant in post-independence Singapore. Its membership would have declined, and we would not have tripartism.

At the Seminar, unionists agreed trade unions had to go beyond collective bargaining. To improve the lives of workers, unions had to become the co-drivers of our social and economic development, together with the Government and employers. And unions had to shift from confrontation to collaboration.

NTUC set up cooperatives to serve important social missions – among them, to help workers cope with cost of living by providing affordable options for essential goods and services. Many of these cooperatives have since become household names, such as FairPrice and Income. NTUC representatives sat in all the major statutory boards, including the EDB and CPF Board. And they continue to do so.

The experience of running cooperatives gave union leaders valuable insights into the problems of running businesses. It helped to shift them from an adversarial stance towards management, to one based on cooperation and mutual benefit. The Modernisation Seminar thus paved the way for tripartism, and ushered in constructive and harmonious relations between unions, employers and the Government. 

NTUC’s brand of progressive trade unionism has been critical in enabling our workers to stay ahead of changes. For instance, in 1982, to get our workforce ready for computerisation, NTUC set up a Computer Training Centre to teach basic IT skills to workers. The Computer Training Centre has evolved into today’s NTUC LearningHub, one of the largest training providers in Singapore.

Our tripartite model has also helped us to overcome one crisis after another. When the 1985 recession hit, union leaders supported the Government’s proposals for a two-year wage restraint and a 15 per cent cut in the CPF contribution rates for employers. It was a bitter pill to swallow. But the unionists understood why we had to do this – to save jobs - and convinced their members. Thanks to the support of workers, we managed to turn the economy around.

We continued to uphold tripartism in subsequent economic crises, such as when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997. Later, during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the tripartite partners rallied together to “upturn the downturn”. With the backing of employers and unions, the Government introduced the Resilience Package totalling $20.5 billion dollars to keep workers employed and help viable companies stay afloat. All along, we stayed deeply committed to tripartism. This has enabled us to stick together, step up to the challenges facing us, and see Singapore through crisis after crisis.

Along the way, government officials and unionists forged close working relationships. Government officers have long been seconded to NTUC, while labour representatives have been deployed extensively in government agencies. In fact, Brothers Lee Hsien Loong, Teo Chee Hean and Lim Swee Say were among the young officers assigned to help set up NTUC’s Computer Training Centre!

These interactions have kept both sides sensitive to each other’s concerns. Brothers and Sisters, we owe a debt of gratitude to the unionists who embarked on the modernisation journey 50 years ago. The unionists who attended the Modernisation Seminar had little formal education. Many of them did not speak English, and NTUC had to provide simultaneous translation into all four languages. 

But these ordinary men and women, had deep courage and the future in their bones, and they did extraordinary things. They modernised themselves, the movement and their country by the bootstraps. We are here today because of them. Much like at NTUC’s birth in 1961, the 1969 Modernisation Seminar was the product of the close NTUC-PAP symbiosis. 

The labour leaders who played leading roles in NTUC’s modernisation included Devan Nair, Seah Mui Kok, Ho See Beng, S R Nathan and T H Eliott. And the political leaders who spoke at the Seminar included Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam. Indeed, it was Dr Goh who suggested that NTUC begin with insurance, and fittingly became NTUC Income’s first Chairman. Many other first-generation PAP leaders played key roles in NTUC’s modernisation, including Ong Pang Boon, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen and E W Barker. This close working relationship between the PAP and NTUC underpins our brand of tripartism. It remains as vital today, as it was in 1969.

Tackling New Challenges Together: Tripartite Partners’ Response

Today, we face a rapidly changing global landscape, which can reshape all aspects of our lives. Our tripartite partners will have to respond to these changes. The first is the speed of technological advancements. Automation and digitalisation will transform businesses and social models, create high quality jobs, and improve the lives of people. But they will also make many jobs and skills redundant. What we learnt in school may not stay relevant for long. 

Second, globalisation creates bigger markets and opportunities, but also sharper competition. Globalisation has enabled competitive companies to scale across many markets, and make large profits. Companies compete to pay for and hire the best. The best get even more than the rest, leading to tensions between the haves and have-nots. So support for globalisation is falling, especially in advanced economies. Many workers feel that they have been left behind, and free trade has not worked for them. We must make sure that the fruits of growth are felt by all, or society can fracture.

Third, the changing profile of our workforce. We have a range of workers – from low wage workers and self-employed individuals to managers and professionals. If we are not careful, there will be a skills and digital divide. Those who are well-educated and digitally savvy can go on to build more skills and do even better. Those who start with less may risk falling behind. Our workforce in Singapore is also ageing. People are living longer, which is good. But we will need to make it possible for all workers to stay active in the workforce for as long as they are willing and able. 

These trends are changing the future of jobs and of businesses – throughout the world, not only in Singapore. Can Singapore chart our own way forward, just as we did 50 years ago? Yes, we can. Just as NTUC embarked on modernisation 50 years ago, we must embark on another significant transformation. In fact, Brother Chee Meng and his team have already started. Building on what they have started, let me suggest three strategies as we transform for the future. 

First, be an active agent in the transformation of our economy; second, prepare our workforce for jobs of the future through lifelong learning; and third, pursue inclusive growth. 

Strategy 1: Transforming our Economy

To build better lives for our workers, we will have to transform our economy. Our tripartism is a key asset in this effort. Since 2016, we have launched 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), covering about 80% of Singapore’s economy. The ITMs set out clear strategies to drive innovation, promote internationalisation, raise productivity and the skills of our workers in each industry. We have already seen success stories. Yesterday, I launched The Business Times’ Leaders of Transformation book at the Enterprise 50 Awards event. The companies profiled exemplify what it means to be leaders of transformation. All of them made efforts to upskill their workers. I am confident that we will succeed because of the strong tripartite partnerships in all the industries covered by the ITMs

The unions in particular play a critical role. NTUC has organised itself to be an active agent of transformation, helping to communicate these changes, win support and rally the workers to come on board. Brother Poh Koon is at the helm of industry transformation in the manufacturing, and trade and connectivity clusters. Brother Desmond Choo is leading several initiatives to help companies innovate, and to help workers make the most of new job opportunities.

The Labour Movement is promoting skills development. I am very happy that Brother Chee Meng is taking a major step by setting up the Company Training Committees (CTCs). The Labour Movement will be embedded in companies to help workers and employers alike. This will take training beyond broad-based, national strategies, to the company level. So, why is Chee Meng doing this? Because all too often, workers and companies might not be clear about their skills training needs. Unions can apply their deep knowledge of the workplace and factory floor to identify the right courses, customise training, and help workers develop relevant skills for particular jobs.

The relationship between companies and workers is a mutually reinforcing one – more competitive companies provide better jobs and higher pay for workers; and highly skilled workers make companies stronger, more productive, and more competitive. Unions are well-positioned to strengthen both. 

I am happy that more companies and unions are working together to deploy technology to augment labour, to achieve win-win outcomes. Some companies seek to just protect their own bottom lines, deploying technology and machines to replace workers. Win for companies, lose for workers. This causes resentment. But there are others that seek to re-design jobs, retrain workers, and redeploy them as part of the upgrading plans of their companies. In turn, workers earn higher wages and improve their lives. Such win-win outcomes are what we want. 

Last week, I witnessed the signing of an MOU between Chye Thiam Maintenance, and the Building, Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union, to set up a CTC. Chye Thiam Maintenance is one of the largest home-grown cleaning companies in Singapore. But because cleaning is not an attractive task, Chye Thiam Maintenance has always faced challenges in hiring and retaining workers. They are overcoming their difficulties by investing heavily in equipment and innovation, as well as in training, so their workers can operate the new equipment and processes confidently. The CTC will help both Chye Thiam Maintenance and its workers be more productive in “Easier, Safer and Smarter” jobs. 

Brother Chee Meng has said NTUC will set up 1,000 CTCs over the next three years, to benefit around 330,000 workers. Lifelong learning and reskilling will take on new meaning. This far-sighted scheme will be a game-changer. Let us all give Brother Chee Meng and his team a warm round of applause. In my discussions with union leaders, they told me that they wanted to see more support for unionised workers. I have supported and accepted this suggestion. 

From 1 April 2020, unionised companies and e2i’s partners can receive an additional 10% of funding support from the Labour Movement, under the Enterprise Development Grant. But to be eligible, companies will have to set up CTCs, and commit themselves to other positive worker outcomes such as raising salaries of low-wage workers, or reskilling. It is important for companies to see workers as key partners in their companies’ transformation, and to make sure their transformation efforts benefit workers. 

CTCs reflect how our “unusual” Labour Movement has evolved over the years. The modernisation spirit has led unions to deepen their partnerships with employers to make sure training and skills upgrading directly benefits workers. Elsewhere, it is left to the private sector or governments to initiate. Here in Singapore, it is led by unions and workers! That is the remarkable capacity of our Labour Movement – to be the co-agents of economic and social transformation. And this capacity is something we must continue to strengthen.

Strategy 2: Preparing our workers for jobs of the future through lifelong learning

The second strategy is preparing our workers for jobs of the future, through lifelong learning. NTUC recognises there will be new industries and new jobs in the future. So it is embarking on preparing our workforce for these jobs. Let me share a story from my trip to Silicon Valley with school leaders when I was Education Minister. We went to study “Ed-Tech” – educational technologies. 

After the visits, I asked our education leaders – what do you like, and what do you not like? They told me, we liked the creative use of technology. But we do not like their approach – to use technology to replace the teachers. They do not understand how humans learn. I agreed with them. So we decided to take a different path. We developed our own Student Learning Space, and used technology to augment what teachers could do, to enable teachers to teach even better! So in the same way, we must make sure that technological advancements help workers do their jobs better – not replace them. 

I attended the World Economic Forum at Davos in January this year. One of their reports estimated that advanced technologies could result in the loss of 75 million jobs worldwide by 2022. And 2022 is just three years from now. On the other hand, up to 133 million new jobs – almost double what might be lost – may be created by these same technologies. What does this mean for us? It means that there are many new opportunities for all of us, and we must be prepared to seize them. 

Skills development is key. As we say in Mandarin, “活学活用, 学以致用, 终生学习,终生受用”. Learn actively, apply what we learn. Lifelong learning, lifelong benefit. I announced in this year’s Budget that the Government will spend $3.6 billion over the next three years to help our workers thrive amid economic transformation. Efforts like SkillsFuture and Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) have helped our workers do well amid economic transformation.

Take for example, Brother Lim Chin Chye at the PSA. Chin Chye used to operate manual yard cranes, stationed in a cabin seven storeys high. Through PCP, he learnt to handle advanced automated cranes. Now, he works from an air-conditioned control centre on the ground, in comfort and safety. At first, Chin Chye was uncertain – after all, he had to learn a brand new system. When I asked him, he said, for the first time in 30 years! But now, he is confident and ready to tackle the transformations taking place in his workplace. Chin Chye was recently featured on CNA. He said, of his new role, “you don’t feel alone, it’s like a big family.” 

With the support of schemes such as PCPs, I hope that all our workers will never feel alone in their skill development journeys. Chin Chye is an excellent example of a worker who has taken the effort to adapt and grow in new roles. I am happy that there are many workers like Chin Chye. Last year, almost 5,000 workers participated in PCPs, 30% more than in 2017. About two-thirds also received higher wages than before. We can’t protect jobs that will be made redundant. But we can and will protect workers – every working man and woman. Brother Chee Meng and his colleagues are thinking of what’s next, how can we do better?

Today, training mainly helps workers take up good jobs in existing growth areas. But we should also start thinking about how our workers can develop skills for jobs that do not yet exist. The rapid pace of technological advancement means that the jobs of tomorrow will be different from the jobs of today. Unions can help to develop the right attitude among workers towards upskilling and reskilling. We must support workers to prepare for the future, and not be fatalistic about change and economic transformation. NTUC’s e2i is doing a good job, and expanding its reach by partnering our Institutes of Higher Learning. We look forward to more initiatives and teamwork in this area. 

Strategy 3: Pursuing Inclusive Growth

This brings me to my third strategy, ensuring that our economic growth remains inclusive. As I mentioned earlier, globalisation has come under question. Many people in advanced economies are frustrated. Their wages are stagnating, their political systems are malfunctioning, and their lives are not improving. We cannot guarantee the same will not happen here. But we can and must try to avoid a similar fate. And the key to that is tripartism and the continued vitality of our unions.

In their May Day message, Sister Mary and Brother Chee Meng spoke about the Labour Movement’s mission to help workers secure the 3 W’s – better Wages, better Work Prospects and better Welfare. And in his speech, Chee Meng spoke about three wins: for workers, for businesses, and for Singapore! The Labour Movement has a mandate to help all workers secure these 3 W’s – from daily-rated workers to those in managerial and professional roles, as well as the self-employed and the part-timers. In addition, we must pay particular attention to the lower-wage workers, seniors and those who have left the workforce early. 

This is why Brother Swee Say, when he was NTUC Secretary-General, first mooted the idea of a Progressive Wage Model. Today, the Progressive Wage Model covers all outsourced workers in the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors. Lift technicians will be joining them soon. The Progressive Wage Model maps out clear pathways for workers to progress in their careers, and earn more as they become more skilled, productive, and take on higher responsibilities. 

The Labour Movement and the Government are also focused on helping our seniors. Our workforce is getting older. But with age comes wisdom. We therefore want to support our seniors to continue working for as long as they are able and want to do so. This is why the Government is strengthening support for our seniors to earn more, save more, and have greater peace of mind in retirement. This support includes higher Workfare payouts, Additional Extra Interest for older CPF members, and the extension of the Special Employment Credit to end-2020. 

Supporting senior employment is something close to the hearts of the 4G leadership. The tripartite partners have agreed to raise the Retirement and Re-employment Ages, so that more workers can stay in the workforce if they choose to. We will also review CPF contribution rates. We will implement these proposals step-by-step. We must not forget the workers who have left the workforce early, or those who have not worked consistently and therefore have not accumulated much in their CPF savings. The Government is studying how to help these individuals save more, and how to target those who need help most. We will work out the details in the coming months, and share more when ready.

Every Worker Matters. The NTUC and the PAP have always been committed to uplifting all our workers. We are committed to do this because we believe we are all in this together. Whether you are rich or poor, whether you are a worker or a manager, whether you are an employer or a unionist – each of us owes a duty to care for, support and sustain each other. This is how we keep our country together. This is why we address each other as Brother or Sister in the Labour Movement. I trust that NTUC will consider what more can be done for the well-being of the various groups in our workforce. We must leave no one behind.

A Labour Movement for the Future

The NTUC is stronger today than when it embarked on its modernisation journey 50 years ago. But this journey cannot stop, given the challenges ahead. I am confident that NTUC can renew itself and embark on yet another transformation, just like in 1969. You may ask, why is this important? Would Singapore suffer if the Labour Movement were to disappear? 

As it so happens, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked precisely this question 50 years ago when he opened the Modernisation Seminar. He said and I quote: “There is one school of thought that for rapid industrialisation for an underdeveloped country it is better not to have trade unions. They cite Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in support of this theory.” So why shouldn’t Singapore take the same route, Mr Lee asked. His answer deserves to be quoted in full:

Because “Singapore’s objective is not just industrialisation. The development of the country is very important. But equally important is the development of the nature of our society. We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions. To survive as a nation and distinct community we have to be a proud and rugged people, or we fail. You can neither be proud nor rugged if you have not got self-respect. Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to our workers, that protection for a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen. He may be an unskilled worker, but he is one of us. He must be prepared to fight and die for Singapore. He will neither be able nor willing to do this if he is a cringing coward.”

So why are we still committed to the Labour Movement? Why do we believe that it should expand its scope to encompass the entire workforce – workers at all levels, professionals, SME owners, self-employed individuals and even foreign workers? Because self-respect is what NTUC has given to every working man and woman in Singapore. The Movement has guaranteed a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.

Today is the first time I’m speaking to you as leader of the next generation of PAP leaders. I renew today the pledge that Mr Lee made at your Modernisation Seminar 50 years ago, and that every Prime Minister has since renewed. I assure you, the close symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC, which underpins our unique and precious brand of tripartism, will continue into the 4G and beyond. In Malay, there is the saying: “Bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh!” United we stand, divided we fall. Truly, the PAP and NTUC have gone through thick and thin together over almost 60 years.

NTUC backs the PAP because the PAP is pro-people. It has kept faith with the unions. And the PAP treasures its relationship with the NTUC because the NTUC is pro-worker. It remains committed to the self-respect of every working man and woman, and believes that the purpose of economic development is to improve the lives of all in the workforce. We strive for growth, in order to improve the lives of every Singaporean. The Labour Movement can be assured that the PAP will never abandon the working man and woman. 

The 4G leadership grew up witnessing how this close working relationship between the PAP and the unions has benefited Singaporeans. All of us in the 4G team have been personally involved in the Labour Movement in one way or another. Brothers Chun Sing, Chee Meng, Ye Kung, Iswaran, Chee How, Poh Koon, and Sister Josephine have served or are serving with the Labour Movement. And this close relationship between the PAP and the unions goes back decades. We have had labour MPs in Parliament since the beginning – from Mahmud Awang and Eric Cheong in the 1960s, to stalwarts like Mrs Yu-Fu Yee Shoon, Othman Harun Eusofe and the esteemed Madam Halimah Yacob in recent years. 

I’ll also like to pay tribute to the union leaders who have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with us, such as the late Cyrille Tan and Nithiah Nandan, as well as Yeo Chun Fing, who recently retired. All highly respected unionists, who worked hard to improve the lives of workers. The contributions of these and other unionists to nation building are immense. My colleagues and I recognise the importance of what we are inheriting – this shared sense of responsibility that the PAP and the NTUC owe to Singaporeans and Singapore.

This is the enduring legacy of those who came before us, the pioneers who gathered 50 years ago at the historic Modernisation Seminar. My generation of leaders is ready to take up the baton and carry forth the mission to create a brighter future for all Singaporeans. We are confident of achieving our mission. Building on our partnerships, we will take NTUC, our workers and Singapore to the next level, just like our predecessors did in 1969. There is still so much we can achieve together. Brothers and Sisters, we are not done building Singapore. 

Thank you, and Happy May Day!