Keynote Address by Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) 40th Anniversary Event on 23 April 2021.
Dr Robert Yap
Minister Josephine Teo,
Sister Mary Liew, Brother Chee Meng, Brother Swee Say,
Ladies and gentlemen,
A very good morning to all of you.
Let me start by congratulating SNEF on your 40th Anniversary.
I am very happy to join you here today – together with our tripartite partners – to celebrate this important milestone.
SNEF was formed 40 years ago as the national trade union of employers.
You are to employers what the Labour Movement is to our workers.
Over the decades, SNEF’s membership has more than quadrupled.
Today, you represent more than 3,400 employers, with a combined workforce of over 800,000 workers.
Tripartism in Singapore
But SNEF is more than just a trade union of employers.
You are a key pillar of strength for tripartism in Singapore.
In our earlier history – and that is still the case in many countries today – employers and unions are on opposing sides of the negotiating table, confronting each other, to grab their share of the pie.
But the outcomes are often perverse, as the pie does not grow, but shrinks.
It was not until the late 1960s that the foundations for the tripartism we know today were set.
Faced with major job losses from the British military withdrawal, the Government acted decisively to welcome investors and create jobs.
The Government enacted the Employment Act and Industrial Relations Act to create an integrated legal framework for employer-employee relationships.
The Labour Movement organised the Modernisation Seminar in 1969 that ushered in a more collaborative approach between unions and employers.
Employers shared the benefits of growth with workers, and all sides benefit.
This tripartite approach has worked well over the years.
It is a collective effort – with employers, unions and the Government working together towards a common goal.
That goal is to grow our economy, create more opportunities for our people, and improve the lives of our workers and their families.
Over the years, our model of tripartism has not only been the bedrock for our growth and prosperity, but has also been critical in enabling us to rebuild from crises, and emerge stronger.
A few years after SNEF was formed, Singapore experienced our first economic recession – in 1985.
Thereafter, we went through tough several economic times, including the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis.
Today we are facing a crisis of a generation, triggered by COVID-19.
Last year, we had our worst economic recession since Independence.
But our tripartite partnership enabled us to avoid the worst of the crisis.
The Government set aside $100 billion in support for workers, businesses and households.
With good feedback from SNEF and tripartite partners, we were able to target support where it is most needed.
And we went one step further to collaborate on creating jobs and training opportunities for our workers under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.
To help employers upskill their workers during the crisis, SNEF shifted its training online and offered 90 new e-learning programs last year.
I thank Dr Robert Yap, who not only mobilised SNEF to help employers, but was equally committed to helping our workers during this crisis.
But despite our best efforts, we were not able to preserve all jobs, especially in the harder-hit sectors.
SNEF and the Labour Movement stepped up to work with us to develop guidelines for responsible retrenchment.
But there were also situations where businesses fail and were unable to pay wages owed to workers, much less retrenchment benefits.
I am pleased to hear from Robert that as a further act of solidarity with workers in difficult straits, SNEF will be contributing $1 million dollars to the Short-Term Relief Fund to support these workers.
This show of solidarity – between employers and workers – is an enduring feature of tripartism in Singapore, one that we must continue to treasure and preserve.
Future of Work
On the strength of our tripartite partnerships and the collective effort you have put in, I am confident that we will be able to overcome COVID-19.
But the virus has also accelerated global structural shifts – such as the digital revolution, environmental sustainability, and a premium on resilience.
At home, we continue to deal with the challenges of an ageing population.
As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we must shift our focus towards emerging stronger from this crisis, this requires us to get on top of the structural challenges ahead and make the most of the opportunities available.
One big question for all of us here today is – what is the future of work after COVID-19?
COVID-19 has accelerated the future of work in at least three ways.
First, COVID-19 has shown that working from home is possible. By now, most of us are used to working online and having virtual meetings.
Many events are now hybrid – like the one today, or have gone fully virtual.
As we gradually re-open, up to 75% of the workforce can now return to office.
But working from home will likely remain a feature of work.
The possibilities of remote working open up new possibilities and challenges.
“Working from home” is one step away from “working from anywhere”.
This will enable our workers to remotely access new opportunities abroad,
But also open them up to competition from overseas.
We must therefore redouble our efforts to upskill our workers to prepare them for the digital economy, and continue to support them in skills upgrading throughout their careers so that they can continue contributing and creating value in a post-COVID-19 world.
At the same time, working from home has also enabled workers to better juggle their caregiving responsibilities to their parents and young children.
This will become even more important as our population ages and as we do our best to support young families.
SNEF and our tripartite partners can play a bigger role in shaping employer practices and mindset, to sustain working from home and encourage other flexible work arrangements post-COVID-19.
By allowing your employees to contribute at work while still balancing their other responsibilities, this will ultimately benefit businesses as well.
Second, COVID-19 has accelerated automation and the digital revolution.
Lockdowns and safe management measures around the world have curtailed the movement of people, within cities and across borders.
To cope with the labour shortages, many companies adapted by turning to automation and digital technology.
The pace of digital change has also accelerated as consumers and customers go online for their needs.
For our companies to thrive in a post-COVID-19 economy, we must help them to digitalise and turn digital disruptions into opportunities.
We are doing so through the Industry Transformation Maps, and through programmes such as SME Go Digital.
In tandem with these digitalisation efforts, we must also redesign jobs. This is also a tripartite effort.
For example, SNEF recently took on the role of program manager for job redesign under the Productivity Solutions Grant.
Over the next three years, SNEF will work with partners to help 1,000 companies transform job roles affected by digitalisation, and make these jobs more attractive for locals.
We must further strengthen these efforts.
Third, COVID-19 has provided greater impetus to uplift lower-wage workers.
Many of the essential workers that kept Singapore going during the height of the crisis were lower-wage workers.
Over the years, we have done much to improve their lives – through Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model (PWM).
With the Tripartite Workgroup on Lower-Wage Workers, I hope we can bring more employers on board this journey to extend PWM to more occupations and sectors, and to ensure sustainable wage growth for those currently under PWM.
This is not easy for employers, as sustainable wage growth has to be supported by continuous productivity gains.
But our businesses have the full support of tripartite partners in their transformation journey, and we will also rally Singaporeans to better support and appreciate employers who pay progressive wages.
Employer-Employee Relations in a Post-COVID World
Beyond these specific areas of the future of work that COVID-19 has accelerated, I would also like to address the evolving relationship between employers and employees.
tn the 1980s, when SNEF was established, many jobs around the world were characterised by “lifelong employment”.
There was an implicit understanding that if an employee was loyal and committed to an organisation, The organisation would take care of the employee for life. But this has changed.
With the rapid advancement of technologies, more new companies are emerging, disrupting established incumbents. The longevity of companies has shortened as a result.
With globalisation and the increased possibilities of remote work, talent and opportunities are less bounded by physical geography.
Some argue that the employer-employee relationship has become more short-term, more transactional, citing the rise of the gig economy and shorter employee tenure.
They argue that as a result, the bond between businesses and workers has weakened.
But I have a different view. “Lifelong employment” is indeed no longer a key feature of the labour market. What matters more is “lifelong employability”.
But in the fast-moving, complex and uncertain world that we expect post-COVID-19, the strong bond between employers and employees will be critical to enhancing both the lifelong employability of workers, and the longevity of companies.
Workers who are given continuous support from their employers to upgrade and new opportunities, can grow and develop.
In turn, companies thrive when workers have the relevant experience and skills, and the ability to create and innovate.
In other words, the fortunes of employers and employees are closely intertwined – better workers enable companies to be more competitive, and more competitive companies can invest in their workers.
We must seek to develop this virtuous circle.
In Singapore, another key advantage is that our employers do not operate alone.
Through the Industry Transformation Maps, employers come together, working with tripartite partners to nurture and upskill their workers, and to create pathways for workers to grow and fulfil their potential.
The TechSkills Accelerator, or TeSA, is one example, of how the ICT sector banded together to upgrade our IT professionals, and to develop future workers in the sector.
Our ITMs are in fact an embodiment of how tripartism works in Singapore, and how we can collectively achieve more than the sum of our individual efforts.
We have seen encouraging progress since embarking on our ITM journey in 2016 – both in terms of productivity and real wage growth.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has disrupted this progress.
And as I mentioned earlier in my speech, COVID-19 has also accelerated longer-term structural trends.
We are therefore embarking on ITM 2025 – building on the progress made in the last five years, to refresh each of the 23 ITMs for the next five years, and developing new strategies to meet the accelerated changes brought about by COVID-19.
So it is not just lifelong employability of workers that we need to focus on – which in itself is a key plank, but also how we create new opportunities for them by holistically growing our economy and companies, through digitalisation, innovation, and internationalisation.
ITM 2025 will build on the insights from our ITM efforts so far, and be strengthened by three new thrusts.
First, the refresh of the ITMs will be complemented by the work of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce and the Alliances for Action that it has pioneered.
The Emerging Stronger Taskforce is finalising its recommendations on how we can make the most of new opportunities in the post-COVID-19 world. We will announce the details soon.
Second, our ITM 2025 efforts will be more closely integrated with our $25 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan, which I announced last year.
This way our economic transformation efforts are better complemented by our research and innovation efforts.
Third, we will strengthen our focus on the redesign of jobs, the reskilling of our workers, and the training of our students in the Institutes of Higher Learning.
This will enable us to bring the best out of our people.
With our tripartite partners working closely together on ITM 2025 and the transformation of our economy, we ensure that business transformation, workplace transformation and workforce transformation are tightly integrated.
Let me take this opportunity to thank our tripartite partners for your commitment and for continuing to innovate, especially the Labour Movement for major innovations in working with businesses, with the setting up of Company Training Committees, to help workers upgrade while supporting company transformation, and the Job Security Council to help workers retain their jobs or move into new roles.
I am confident that you will continue to collaborate and innovate to enable both businesses and workers to ride the waves of changes, in our next phase of growth.
I warmly congratulate SNEF for your achievements over the last 40 years.
As we celebrate your 40th anniversary in the midst of the pandemic, it also reminds us that we must continue to work closely as tripartite partners to help employers and workers navigate this crisis.
SNEF, the Labour Movement and the Government will have many new challenges to tackle, and new opportunities to make a difference, in the decades to come.
Singapore’s approach to tripartism has and must continue to adapt and innovate.
I am confident that SNEF will continue to be a key pillar of strength for tripartism, in the next 40 years and beyond.
By working together as one tripartite and one Singapore, we will not only overcome COVID-19 but emerge stronger from this crisis together.
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