May Day Message 2021

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 30 April 2021

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Message 2021 in English.

This year, NTUC celebrates its 60th anniversary. Your founding story is closely intertwined with Singapore’s. In the 1950s, trade unions made common cause with the PAP to press the colonial government for better conditions for workers, and to fight for self-determination and independence. In 1961, when the communists broke away from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis, the trade union movement also split. The NTUC was established, and stood with the PAP against the pro- communist groups.

Those early years were tumultuous. Fighting the communists together forged deep bonds of trust and comradeship between PAP and NTUC leaders. These bonds endured through the wrenching events of 1965, and saw us through our journey from separation to nationhood.

Barely two years after independence, the British announced their intention to withdraw their forces from Singapore. This was another hammer blow. To survive we had to create replacement jobs for our people, which meant making ourselves attractive to foreign investments. The PAP government passed stringent laws to reduce industrial strife while protecting the basic rights of workers. Employers’ powers to hire and fire were restored, while the unions’ scope for collective bargaining – though not their right to organise – was curtailed. The unions were understandably unhappy. However, working through the NTUC, the PAP convinced workers to support the changes as the right way forward.

In 1969, the NTUC held its seminal “Modernization Seminar”. This ushered in a new era of tripartite relations, based on collaboration rather than confrontation. It created the basis for decades of sustained, rapid growth.

Our model of trade unionism and tripartism has been criticised, especially in the West. We have no reason to be defensive. Trade union membership has steadily declined in most western societies. By contrast, union membership has risen consistently in Singapore, by dint of deliberate policy and unremitting effort. Labour movements in the West are now a pale shadow of what they were in the 1960s, while the labour movement in Singapore has grown from strength to strength. The verdict of history is clear: tripartism and cooperation have been far more effective in securing workers’ welfare and livelihoods than militancy and conflict.

Our journey from Third World to First was not all smooth sailing. The withdrawal of British forces was only the first of many storms. There followed the 1973 oil crisis, our first major recession in 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and the Global Financial Crisis. Each time, our tripartite model saw us through. Workers tightened belts, made sacrifices, and accepted pay cuts. Employers shared in the sacrifices, and did their best to save as many jobs as possible. At the same time, government help supported businesses and workers through the difficult times. By working together, practising give-and-take, and focussing on the long term, the tripartite partners found ways forward in difficult circumstances, and strengthened their trust and cooperation in readiness for the next storm.

Against this record of crises past, COVID-19 looks not quite so daunting, although it is still a formidable challenge. In normal times, unions work quietly in the background to keep industrial relations on an even keel. But in an overwhelming crisis like COVID-19, your mission to protect workers comes to the fore.

Last year, when job losses became unavoidable, the unions ensured that retrenchments were carried out fairly and responsibly. The NTUC’s Job Security Council directly helped more than 28,000 workers find new jobs, as well as provided financial support through the NTUC Care Fund (COVID-19). NTUC also partnered the Government to implement the Self- Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), extending a crucial lifeline to the self-employed.

Through the crisis, the Labour Movement maintained its collaborative stance. It persuaded workers to sacrifice today for the promise of a better tomorrow. Without this spirit of fighting COVID-19 together and never-say-die, we would not have come through our worst downturn since independence so lightly.

Compared to a year ago, our outlook has brightened considerably. The global recession is turning out to be less protracted than we initially feared. While Europe still struggles with fresh waves of COVID-19, the US expects to make a strong recovery this year, on the back of a large stimulus package and good progress in vaccinating its population. China’s economy is doing well too, with hardly any cases in the country. These external trends support our own economic recovery, and justify confidence in our prospects. Already, our unemployment rate is gradually coming down. MTI had earlier forecast 4-6% GDP growth, but barring a setback to the global economy, growth this year is likely to exceed 6%. This will bring us back to where we were before COVID-19 struck.

Beyond this year, new opportunities are opening up. The pandemic has accelerated trends like digitalisation, automation, and sustainability, across all sectors. To seize them, we need to transform our economy for a different, post-COVID-19 world.

The Emerging Stronger Taskforce is busy working on this transformation, and I am happy that the Labour Movement is actively involved. Our workforce is becoming more diverse. Freelancers, entrepreneurs, mature workers and fresh graduates all face different employment challenges. Each group needs customised policies and solutions. The NTUC has formed over 600 Company Training Committees (CTCs). These work with firms to identify capability gaps, co-create new jobs, and train workers for them. The CTCs show how NTUC is making itself relevant, and finding new solutions to secure better jobs for workers.

The guiding principle of tripartism has always been to stay united and progress together. This May Day, let us recommit ourselves to strengthening this partnership, and building a brighter future for Singapore for the next 60 years and beyond.

I wish all Singaporeans a healthy and happy May Day.