Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at Young NTUC LIT DISCOvery on 23 July 2022.
NTUC President Sister Mary Liew
NTUC Secretary-General Brother Ng Chee Meng
CC Members of NTUC
Members and Partners of Young NTUC
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join all of you today and to see so many young Singaporeans at this NTUC event.
A few weeks ago, I launched the Forward Singapore exercise also at an NTUC event. I explained then that Singapore is at a crossroads because we’re now emerging from a pandemic. It is not over, but we are learning to live with the virus; and we are having to navigate great uncertainties. Uncertainties in the world with the Ukraine war, as well as stronger economic headwinds. That’s why during this time, it’s so urgent for us to come together, re-examine and refresh our social compact, and chart our direction for Singapore, for all Singaporeans, for our next bound. This is a big part of my team’s agenda, and I am glad that the NTUC is fully behind this.
Today, my message to you is that refreshing our social compact must also mean revitalising our Labour Movement. So I will touch briefly on the role of unions in Singapore – in particular, how a strong labour movement has always anchored our social compact here in Singapore, why that must remain so for the future, and why that should matter to all of you as young Singaporeans, why all of you should care deeply about this matter. To do that, I will need to do a little bit of history. History lessons are not always the most exciting lessons for young people, but it won’t be too long and I will try to make this interesting.
Unions and the Singapore Story
The Labour Movement has always been vital to Singapore’s success. Even before Singapore become independent, we had the NTUC and we had the PAP, and both were close partners. This symbiotic partnership between NTUC and the PAP brought us through tumultuous years of our founding, and it has persisted since.
What our founding leaders in both the PAP and NTUC did was quite unusual for their time because this approach of working together with the unions was not adopted by many other developing countries. Remember when Singapore was developing, we had what they called the Asian Tigers? It was Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – people called us the Asian Tigers because we were developing very quickly. The other Asian Tigers around us did not encourage unions at all. In fact, they saw unions as an impediment to their progress. But we took a very different approach, we did not agree with that view. Instead, we thought that unions were important. So in Singapore, we not only have strong unions here; but we consciously and deliberately set out to make the Labour Movement a key partner in governing Singapore.
Partnership has thrived over the decades because the leaders of both the PAP and NTUC believe firmly that economic and social development go hand in hand. We pursue growth that is inclusive, that benefits every citizen, not just a few. We believe that unions are key to according all workers self-respect and dignity. So even as we bring in foreign investors and strengthen local businesses, we always make sure that workers are protected. All that sets the tone for our society, of how Singapore should develop. This is how today when you look at all the NTUC T-shirts you will see a slogan “Every Worker Matters”. That has become a cornerstone for the NTUC, even till today. And that is why workers remain central to everything the PAP does, even till today.
It was also in those early years that we established in Singapore our unique tripartite model. Tripartite meaning three parties coming together – a partnership between employers, unions and the government. This partnership has become so ingrained in our culture that it is almost second nature to us today — in everything we do, we believe it is better to come together and work together rather than oppose and fight each other; it is better to find common ground rather than for each to go our own way. That is how we have been able to tackle the many challenges and crises of the past 60 years, and uplift generations of Singaporeans year by year. This spirit of trust and cooperation is the foundation of everything we do in Singapore, and it must continue to undergird our society as we move forward
This short explanation of our history, I think the key lessons for all of us are clear: A key pillar for Singapore’s success, for our social compact in Singapore, is a strong Labour Movement. And if Singapore is to continue flourishing in the years to come, then it must continue to have a strong labour movement.
Unions and Social Compacts Elsewhere
This is Singapore’s experience. How about other countries? You can look at other countries and you can see many signs of caution because the state of labour relations in many other places have deteriorated, has come down. This gives us a clue, in fact, to the overall health of that society. The state of labour relations in any society is a litmus test of how strong that society is, how strong their social compact is.
Unfortunately across most developed countries, labour relations have come down and trade union membership has declined considerably. People don’t think unions matter very much in these places. Why has this happened? Some of it is partly because of very aggressive and confrontational tactics pursued by many trade unions in Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s. They took a strident, aggressive, approach and as a result, they lost the support of the broad middle of their societies. This in turn led to the defeat of many social democratic parties in these countries, and led to the rise of pro-market conservative parties in the 80s. So if you go back in history, you’ll see we’ve had Ronald Reagan in the US; Margaret Thatcher in the UK, these were transformative figures who were supported by their populations to counter the excesses of the left or the unions. And the decline of unions in these countries started to take place. But this did not happen without cost: Because without strong unions, without collective bargaining, the wages of rank-and-file workers across Europe and the US became depressed. This contributed to stagnant wages for many, and it created a rise in inequality, a greater divide between the haves and the have-nots. When the working class becomes a permanent under-class, with very little prospects for advancement, they lose faith in the system, and trust breaks down. This is what you see happening in many developed countries. More recently, the pendulum has started to shift back. So now you see the resurgence of unionisation efforts, for example in America. If you read the news in America, you will find that from Starbucks to Amazon, workers are now starting to organise themselves and they want to form unions in these companies to fight for their rights. But it is not so easy, it is an uphill battle. Because many of these big, powerful companies see unions as harmful to their own growth and profits, so they try to clamp down on unions instead. As a result, trust between employer and workers breaks down further. It illustrates a simple point, saying that some of you may be familiar with: Trust is built in drops, but is lost in buckets. So when trust is lost, it is lost very quickly, and once it is eroded, it is very, very hard to restore. It is no wonder that many of these societies have become fraught with tension. There is no consensus on how to move forward to implement important issues and progress becomes ever more elusive.
What is the lesson for us – for our younger unionists, workers, and students, in particular, from all of this recounting of history of Singapore and the world. What is the lesson that we take away from this? First of all, we should never take for granted the harmonious tripartite relations we enjoy. Because they are neither a given nor a natural state of affairs. We should also not assume that somehow in Singapore we have some special immunity against the stresses and fissures that have torn through other societies. We didn’t get any special vaccine; we are equally susceptible to the kinds of tensions that you see around the world. And we must not assume that we have arrived at the promised land, that we have reached Nirvana and have no more room for progress. Instead, let us consider how we can build upon the foundation that we have today. This strong foundation of trust to further strengthen the Labour Movement and do our utmost to not just preserve what we have inherited, but to make it better. To do that, the NTUC must continue to be forward-looking and progressive – especially as we refresh our social compact. Our unions must stay relevant in our changing landscape and be responsive to fresh challenges and representative of our changing workforce. If the NTUC remains strong, then we can take heart that we are moving in the right direction, and Singapore will continue to be successful.
Future of the Labour Movement
What does all this mean for the future of the labour movement? Naturally, the NTUC will have to continue to evolve -- even re-invent itself -- in tandem with the times, even as its fundamental role of being the voice and champion of workers remains unchanged.
If the NTUC is to continue organising and mobilising the bulk of our workforce, it will have to adapt to changing trends. For example, we now have a better-educated workforce represented by all of you young students here. We will also have a rising share of Professionals, Managers and Executives in our workforce – and that means NTUC will have to find new ways to engage you, to meet your aspirations and concerns, even while continuing to look after rank-and-file workers. We also see major changes in the nature of work – with the rise of gig and remote work creating new concerns and challenges, and there are more and more rapid technological disruptions too, putting older or more vulnerable workers at greater risk and hastening the need to upskill workers and redesign jobs. These are all the changes that are taking place, and I am confident that the NTUC, led by Sec-Gen Brother Chee Meng, will thoroughly consider these issues and more, and put in place the right structures and processes to broaden and deepen your reach to workers of different profiles so that you continue to represent the broad base of our society so that the Labour Movement will continue to remain a key pillar of strength in Singapore.
I am particularly encouraged by the NTUC’s efforts to grow your pipeline of future leaders. As Brother Ng said just now, this has been a focus for NTUC for two decades now – you’ve formed Young NTUC in 2005 and nEbO in 2007 to strengthen outreach to young Singaporeans. Young NTUC has taken on the role of developing young unionists so they too can represent the aspirations and expectations of young workers like themselves and be a bridge in negotiations with employers. One example is Ms April Tan, she is here with us. She’s an exemplary young leader. She leads the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority Workers’ Union, she’s an urban planner herself, and is the first female Chairperson of Young NTUC. Through her involvement with Young NTUC, April was able to engage with tripartite leaders and hone her leadership skills and this has allowed her to better engage young workers, and champion their cause effectively. Young NTUC has also grown the base of younger activists to represent more diverse segments of the workforce. Take another example Mr Timothy Chan. He’s a member of the National Instructors and Coaches Association, he is the first youth representative of freelancers. He has advocated for the better protection and welfare of freelancers, offering his unique perspective and fresh ideas. There are other examples like April and Timothy across different sectors, and that gives me great hope. Many of you are here with us today, thanks to the efforts of Young NTUC and nEbo too. I thank you for being here and for your active engagement with the unions. Keep up the good work everyone!
Besides nurturing young union leaders, Young NTUC and nEbO will keep a finger on the pulse of young Singaporeans, like all of you here today by engaging you, listening to you through the Youth Taskforce to bring to the forefront the issues that matter to you – young students, and potentially young workers. Issues like your career goals – how to decide on a career path, what kind of future will you envisage, how to build up your skills and gain experience and progress along in your careers. Your longer-term aspirations in life – how to be financially secure for example, as you step into the working world and face uncertainty and challenges, how to take on new responsibilities and start to look after your families. And your own personal wellbeing – how to care for yourself importantly, how to practice self-care and how to look out for the mental wellbeing of your peers in the process. These are issues I know you care about, and we hope to engage you, listen to you, and co-create solutions with you. Through these efforts, NTUC, and all other tripartite partners, will be better able to serve the needs of our younger workers in Singapore.
These conversations and insights will also feed into our national Forward Singapore exercise, which I had launched a few weeks ago. By doing so, we ensure that the concerns and aspirations of a new generation of workers are heard and reflected in our policies as well as our programmes and we ensure that your voice will always be heard, and your inputs will be taken into consideration, and all of you will have a say in co-creating our future as we chart our new way forward together.
To conclude, while there may be challenges ahead, I believe all of us can look forward to the future with confidence and hope. I am confident the NTUC will rise to the challenges we face, while holding fast to your founding principles and values, and I certainly look forward to see a stronger and revitalised NTUC, ever effective in its mission, ever ready to seize new opportunities, and ever able to organise working Singaporeans. On our part, the PAP Government will continue to support and partner the NTUC, upholding the spirit of trust and cooperation, and preserving and strengthening our distinctive Tripartite Way in Singapore. Together, let us bring our country onward and forward. Let us leave behind a better Singapore for generations to come.
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