PM Lee Hsien Loong at the NTUC National Delegates' Conference 2019

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 15 October 2019

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the NTUC National Delegates' Conference on 15 October 2019.


“Celebrating Our Past, Inspiring Our Future”

Sister Mary Liew, NTUC President
Brother Ng Chee Meng, NTUC Secretary-General
Brother Robert Yap, President of Singapore National Employers’ Federation
Brothers and sisters at home and also from overseas

A very good morning to all of you. I am delighted to be here for your NTUC National Delegates’ Conference. I have been attending National Delegates’ Conferences for about 20 years. The last time I was at one was in 2015 – the SG50 year. This year’s conference is also special because it marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Modernization Seminar, which was a pivotal moment for both the NTUC and People’s Action Party (PAP).

Symbiotic relationship

The PAP and the NTUC have been partners from the very beginning – even before they were born. The founders of the PAP began their political lives in the unions. In 1952, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as a young lawyer, represented the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in the postmen’s strike. He won a good settlement for the postmen, and went on to become legal advisor to countless other unions. That same year, Dr Goh Keng Swee set up a Council of Joint Action for all government unions and associations, to demand equal pay for local civil servants, the same as their expatriate colleagues. Two years later, Mr Lee launched the PAP to fight for independence from the British. Several unionists were among the founding members.

The trade unions were right in the middle of the anti-colonial struggle. Originally, they started as traditional unions – British style – advocating better working conditions for workers, and from time to time calling strikes and industrial action. In Singapore, you may not know it but when people say industrial action, they really mean industrial inaction. That means nothing is happening, but it shows that you are angry. There was a lot to be angry about in the 1950s. Inevitably, the unions were drawn into the wider political movement for self-determination, for independence, for merdeka. The PAP made common cause with the unions. We also made common cause with the left-wing, Chinese-educated activists, who were already in the unions with established strong positions. In fact, they control many of the trade unions in Middle Road. Many of these activists were deeply influenced by China and the communist victory in China in 1949. Some had direct links with the communists, and they used the unions as a front to promote the Communist cause.

So after Singapore achieved self-government in 1959, the struggle turned between the non-communists and the pro-communists in the PAP. The unions became one arena of the political struggle between the two sides. In 1961 when the Barisan Sosialis split from the PAP, the trade union movement also split. The pro-communist side took most of the trade unions. The non-communists had to form the NTUC, to stand with the PAP against the pro-communist Barisan-SATU group.

So the PAP and the Labour Movement have been intertwined – twins – from the very start. At first, the PAP and the unions were partners in the anticolonial struggle. Later, the PAP and the NTUC were partners in the fight against the communists.

But after Merger, we entered Malaysia, and then Separation, and we became independent. We had won both these struggles. The colonialists were gone, the communists had been defeated, what is the next battle? The NTUC drifted. Its old political role had diminished. It was uncertain what its mission now was, and how it should now function. Union membership came down sharply, in four years from 1965 when we became independent to 1969, when we had the Modernization Seminar, the membership came down by a quarter. There was no lack of new challenges to come.

Then in 1967, the British announced that they would withdraw their troops east of the Suez, including closing their military bases in Singapore. It was a cold shower for us. We faced the prospect of suddenly losing 14% of our GDP and more than 20,000 jobs. What do you do? It was a crisis.

The PAP leadership was clear on what needed to be done. We pursued industrialisation aggressively, to grow manufacturing businesses, set up factories, and create jobs. But this would only succeed if we made ourselves attractive to foreign investments. The government cannot build the factories. What will it make? Whom will it sell to? Where is the technology? Who is going to run the companies? So we had to bring in investments – foreign investments, multinationals. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that multinationals exploit Third World Countries like Singapore. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “Come, welcome to Singapore, please exploit us, because if you exploit us, you give our workers jobs, and we will learn and we will prosper.” But we had to make it attractive for them to come to Singapore and give them confidence that they can invest here and make money and do well. We passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, to give employers the right to hire, promote and fire employees unilaterally, without first having to consult the unions. We also introduced the Employment Act, to standardise and regulate the terms and conditions of employment for all workers, and eliminate bad work practices left over from the colonial era.

These legislative changes – the Unions did not welcome because it significantly curtailed the bargaining power of the unions. Not surprisingly, the unions found them difficult to accept. But given the choice between adapting to the new realities, and becoming irrelevant, the unions made a sensible decision.

As Devan Nair, then an advisor to the NTUC, said, the Labour Movement was caught in “a race between modernisation and extinction” – either you change, become up-to-date, become relevant, play a useful role, or you carry on with your old model, old thinking, old actions and you become extinct.

This was the genesis of the Modernisation Seminar, 50 years ago. The Modernisation Seminar was NTUC’s response to the challenges it was facing, and it was the moment when NTUC decided to change course and to chart out a new future. That was the turning point.

Outcomes and Legacy of the seminar

Three key PAP leaders spoke at the Seminar, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and Mr S Rajaratnam. The three key people all came. It was a very important meeting. They spoke frankly to the delegates, they laid out the harsh realities facing Singapore, they argued and persuaded the unions that they had to take a broader perspective when looking after workers’ interests.

Not narrowly defined by this year’s wage increase or job security – locked into this job – it cannot be adjusted, cannot be changed, cannot be separated. Instead of that, a more holistic goal: to help workers achieve a better standard of living – better homes, better schools, better hospitals, and a healthier environment and a brighter future for their children.

Then, if we can do that and create more jobs, and there is less unemployment. Over time, wages too would go up. They also reassured the unionists that they had an important role in transforming Singapore into a modern industrial economy, and building an independent and united nation.

It was a very challenging agenda. But by the end of the Seminar, a new compact had been forged between the leaderships on both sides – between the political leaders and the union leaders. All 47 NTUC-affiliated unions declared that they accepted “full responsibility, co-equally with Government and management, for the survival of Singapore in the crucial years ahead, and for its continued and expanding economic development and modernisation”. That was the new mission statement. Full responsibility together with the government and management, that means tripartism, for the prosperity of Singapore and the crucial years ahead, and for Singapore’s continued economic development and modernisation.

Indeed, these were crucial years for Singapore. They were the years we took off. This was the turning point when the unions came on board and started making it happen.

The NTUC was no longer just an institution for collective bargaining. It saw itself as a partner in Singapore’s economic and social transformation. This led to our unique tripartite relationship, which has underpinned half a century of harmonious industrial relations.

As part of its new mission, NTUC expanded its role into the social sphere. It set up cooperatives like Income and FairPrice – in those days it was called Welcome, but it became FairPrice. The NTUC set up businesses to provide life insurance to workers, and necessities like food and groceries at affordable prices to workers and to their families.

Later with the government’s help, it created Orchid Country Club and NTUC Downtown East, so that rank-and-file union members could enjoy recreation and entertainment facilities just like their bosses. So when the NTUC hold celebrations, you come to Orchid Country Club, it could be any country club in Singapore.

Tripartism tested by crises

So, the PAP and NTUC entered a second phase of their relationship – as partners in Singapore’s journey from Third World to First. Harmonious industrial relations came about and it catalysed investments and jobs. We not only survived, but we thrived and took off spectacularly. Our industrialisation drive succeeded beyond our wildest imagination. We leapfrogged the region and linked up with the world and Singapore was well on the journey from Third World to First. Workers’ wages and standards of living rose quickly and we had decades of high growth.

But it was not all smooth sailing because during these decades of high growth, we also went through several very serious downturns, even frightening downturns. In 1985, we had a sharp recession, 1997 – we had the Asian Financial Crisis, and 2008 we had the Global Financial Crisis. Many of you had experienced these things personally, these were the formative moments in your lives.

Each time, tripartite relations were severely tested because workers were under stress, employers were under stress, government is under pressure. What do we do? Do we pull apart or do we hang together? Luckily each time, we tackled the problem together, we pulled through, and we emerged stronger and more united.

In these downturns, the government had to take difficult and painful decisions, such as cutting CPF rates. Harder still, Ministers had to convince union leaders that these steps were unavoidable. Hardest of all, PAP and union leaders then had to persuade Singaporeans and workers to accept the bitter medicine. By then, the founding leaders, who had fought together in those tumultuous early years, had handed over to younger successors. Or in 1985, the first sharp recession, we were preparing to handover.  They said, “here you are”. I think this is a good training exercise for the young people. But it was a live firing exercise, no duff.  We were dealing with real problem with workers lives, workers jobs, and we had to meet them, face to face – it was before we built Orchid Country Club. So we met downtown at NTUC, at the conference hall, and had meetings with them - one after another. I remember I was there at that time with comrade Ong Teng Cheong, who was then the Secretary General. We had to face them, explain to them, defend what we wanted to do. Finally, cajoled, persuaded, convinced the union leaders that this was the right thing to do. There was no choice. Let us persuade the workers, which we did. Through these crises, younger leaders were battle tested, they earned credibility and trust, and so we renewed the close bonds between the PAP and NTUC from the first generation into succeeding generations.

Looking ahead

These bonds between the PAP and NTUC leadership have to be sustained and strengthened.

We are once again sailing into uncharted waters. The world is filled with uncertainties. Our economy is entering a new phase. Technology is transforming many industries. Emerging businesses are disrupting established players. Our workers have to be ready for change. We have to talk about it, we have to understand it, and we have to say we are ready to face it.

Every May Day, when I speak to a union audience, I try to look for a different ways to make this same fundamental point. I look for many examples. But one example which I come back to, again and again, is PSA’s example. Because it is so important to the economy and it shows us so many different aspects of the challenge that we have to face, and of how a successful industry is keeping itself up-to-date and successful.

So let me come back to PSA once more, and tell you something new which you may not know about them. We are building a new port at Tuas. It is going to be a mega-port. Recently, two weeks ago I visited them. They had an event from Tanjong Pagar to Tuas, and they ran a relay. Some running, some were on a boat, some on their AGVs, or soon to be AGVs, on their trucks, doing a torch relay from the old to the new. We are going to move there by 2027. PSA and MPA showed videos of what it will be like, and of their Living Labs, where they are experimenting with new technology. Among the ideas they are trying out are unmanned Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs), moving around in the container yards, remotely controlled, with nobody driving. Quay cranes with remote operators who no longer have to climb up so many storeys and steps to go to the top of the quay crane and look down, in order to manipulate the containers. You have to bring your lunch with you, you have to bring your toilet break with you. But now, you can operate remotely, conveniently, and I hope more efficiently.

New technologies, and new skills are not far away, “akan-datang”. It is coming imminently. Other ports are already using these technologies, like in Shanghai. Our port workers will have to learn these new skills, new routines, different jobs. Once they do this, they too can become more productive, and share the efficiency gains.

The port workers have gone through this before but many other industries are also going through this same transition. So we have to help our workers handle this transition properly. Train them for new roles, teach them to cope with the rapid changes, and remain employable. Hold their hands, and give them confidence. We can make it together. It will not be easy, but we will walk with you every step of the way.

In many countries, it is not like that. When workers lose their jobs, they are left alone to fend for themselves. Other workers still in their jobs, many of them, they have not been retrenched, but they feel left behind by progress, they feel their own lives do not seem to be improved. The masses are angry that the elites in the country, their leaders, seem disconnected, seem to be only looking after themselves. Worse, when people feel being looked down upon. The social compact, that trust, that mutual reliance, has been fractured. So people are angry, they just want to tear the system down, because it is no longer working for them. What comes after that? They do not know. Will it be better? They have no idea. “But I am angry, I want to tear this down, I do not care whether that will make things better”.

This is why populist movements are growing in many countries. In America, as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, sensed angry this mood, championed this group, and won enough votes to become President.

In Britain, the Brexit campaign mobilised people who felt left out by globalisation. This campaign has exacerbated the fault lines and deeply divided the British people. It will take them many years, more than a generation, to come back and become one nation again.

In France, Emmanuel Macron won a close Presidential election, defeating the right wing party candidate Marie Le Pen. Because, the French have the same ground pressures which led to the right wing group gaining support, but not quite enough to win. But the unhappiness was still there. So when Macron became president, and he raised diesel taxes last year, it triggered violent and sustained demonstrations by the “Yellow Vests” – people who felt left behind, and looked down upon.

These are all far away, but in the last few months, there is an example closer to home. Everyone has been watching closely the demonstrations and riots in Hong Kong. There is clearly deep and widespread unhappiness in Hong Kong society. It is not a minority, it is millions of people feeling aggrieved. The most vocal complaints are political; how One Country, Two Systems is working out; how Hong Kong chooses its political leaders, and governs itself. But underlying this is also the sense that serious economic and social concerns have not been addressed in Hong Kong. Housing is very expensive; it is difficult to start families and have children; the younger generation are not optimistic about their future, no matter how hard they study or work.

So, they are in a very troubled situation now. Singapore’s situation is quite different from Hong Kong’s, but we should study closely what is happening in all these other places, including Hong Kong, and ask ourselves: can this deep social angst happen here? Can this social division befall us? My answer is, yes it can, if we are not careful.

Singapore is not immune to the underlying divisive forces that are tearing at these other countries. We are exposed to the world, we are globalised more than them, we are vulnerable because we are smaller than them, and we feel the same forces, and we have to resist it better than them. If it happens to us, like what is happening elsewhere, we will suffer the same consequences as the other countries - only worse, because we are that much more vulnerable. It will then become impossible to govern Singapore, to make and carry out difficult decisions, or to plan for the long term good of the nation. Nobody will think about Tuas 2028, or Singapore in 2050, or your grandchildren, because next week, next month, even next year, will seem so far away. Confidence in Singapore will be destroyed. Singapore will be finished.

How do we avoid this dire outcome? One key foundation is the symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC. Because of this symbiotic relationship, we already have a government that represents the workers’ interests – the PAP government. The PAP will always remain close to its roots in the Labour Movement. That is why many PAP Members of Parliament come from the NTUC. In Cabinet, the NTUC Secretary-General sits as a full Minister; your DSG also takes part in Cabinet Meetings as SMS, and they both speak up for workers when policies are made. Sometimes when policies are not yet made, they put their hands up and ask also.

The PAP’s fundamental objective is to advance the well-being and the future of our workers. That is why the PAP government - we build affordable homes for families; we deliver high quality health care to young and old; we make good preschools and schools available to every infant and child; and we ensure that the public transport system is reliable, efficient and affordable to all. Most of all, the PAP government creates jobs and opportunities for our workers, to enable every citizen to improve their own lives through their own efforts – provide for their families and themselves and their futures, with confidence and pride. This is far better than having a populist government that gives vent to the frustrations of the population, or panders to the short-term passions at the expense of our long-term interests.

On its part, the Labour Movement has participated as an equal and constructive partner to create prosperity and growth. As Dr Goh wrote in his foreword to the Report on the Modernisation Seminar, all those years ago, the Labour Movement has understood that “it is only when there is growth and prosperity that its members can get the improvements they want”. Workers have enjoyed a fair share of the fruits of your efforts. You have influence and interests within the system. You do not have to go outside it, work around it, or worse, try to pull it down and replace it. This is your system. Make it succeed and take pride in it. The PAP is working with you, for you, for Singapore.

That is how we have worked together and prospered ever since the Modernisation Seminar. Of course, in half a century, the world has changed many times. NTUC has been progressive and forward-looking under successive Secretaries-General, from Brother Devan Nair, all the way now to Brother Ng Chee Meng. We invited the previous Sec Gens to come today, but many of them are overseas, but I am very happy to see Brother Lim Chee Onn here with us today. Welcome Chee Onn.

Today, NTUC continues to rethink your role, to keep yourself up to date and relevant to the changing needs of workers. You are pushing hard to continuously reskill and upgrade your members, to help older workers to work longer and stay active. You are growing union membership and diversifying your representation; you are bringing more workers into the NTUC family, and you are expanding your social enterprises, whether it is My First Skool, Foodfare, FairPrice or NTUC Health.

In all these ways, NTUC and its social enterprises continue to make a difference to the lives of workers; to assure workers that you are not alone. As you make your way forward in an uncertain world, a strong NTUC will help you, guide you, and walk with you. This is how we can stay united, and progress together.


Fifty years ago, our pioneer leaders promised to keep Singaporean workers at the centre of our economic and social development efforts. Generations of PAP and union leaders have worked closely together to deliver on this objective. This promise remains as relevant and essential today, as it was 50 years ago.

So today, the PAP Government renews our commitment to you. We will always stand with workers and ensure your well-being. We will always do our best to help you and your children progress with Singapore, and have a better life. We will ensure that no Singaporean, regardless of family background or life circumstances, will ever be shut out from opportunities, or left behind.

At this Conference, you will be electing the NTUC Central Committee. As Sister Mary Liew told you just now, the elections will be tomorrow. I am confident that you will choose good leaders who will serve you capably, and well. Leaders, who will develop deep roots among workers, understand your needs and concerns, identify with you, and speak up for you. At the same time, leaders who can help you to see the national perspective, and persuade you to support policies which will benefit you in the long term. That has to be so in the NTUC, it also has to be so in the PAP. That is how they can lead you, advance your interests, and secure your jobs and futures for many more years to come. Thank you!