PM Lee Hsien Loong at May Day Rally 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 1 May 2021
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PM Lee Hsien Loong delivered his 2021 May Day Rally speech at D'Marquee in Downtown East on 1 May 2021.


Sister Mary Liew, President of NTUC
Brother Ng Chee Meng, Secretary-General of NTUC
Brother Dr Robert Yap, President, Singapore National Employers’ Federation
Comrades from the PAP, Brothers and Sisters in the Labour Movement
Good morning and Happy May Day!

Happy to join you in person to mark May Day this year. I was last here two years ago. Last year we couldn’t do it, the Rally took place virtually, during the circuit breaker. This year, our COVID-19 situation is better. We can gather together, although in smaller numbers than usual and safe management and in different coloured tags. It is important for us to do this. Because this year is special. It is NTUC’s 60th birthday. Happy Birthday NTUC!

NTUC and the PAP

NTUC’s founding is closely intertwined with the Singapore story. Many of Singapore’s founding leaders began their political lives in the trade unions or fighting alongside them. Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself launched his political career by representing the postal workers’ union, in the postmen’s strike of 1952. When Mr Lee and his colleagues founded the PAP in 1954 to fight for independence from the British, several unionists were among the first members. The next year, Mr Lee stood for election in Tanjong Pagar. The postmen mobilised to support him and helped give  him his first electoral victory.

After Singapore achieved self-government, the fight between the non-communists and the pro-communists heated up. The unions became a battleground. In 1961, the pro-communist group broke away from the PAP to form a separate party, the Barisan Sosialis,  and the trade union movement also split. Out of 100 unions, 82 supported the Barisan Sosialis. But 12 stalwart unions stood by the PAP. They got together and formed the NTUC. That was how the NTUC was born, and that is why this year, we are celebrating its 60th birthday.

Persuading unions to join NTUC was a tough proposition. It needed steel and guts. But a small group of union leaders battled against the tide. They were led by Devan Nair and Ho See Beng. Another stalwart was Mahmud Awang, who became the Chairman of the NTUC’s Pro-Tem Committee. Encik Mahmud came from the Singapore Traction Company (STC) Employees’ Union, one of the 12 that joined NTUC. Later he became a PAP Legislative Assemblyman, and then after independence, a PAP MP. Long after he retired, Encik Mahmud would still come to gatherings of old PAP MPs until recently, where I was privileged to get to know him and meet him. Sadly, Encik Mahmud passed away this January. But we remember him warmly and will always keep him in our hearts.

The founding PAP and NTUC leaders forged deep bonds of comradeship in the crucible of struggle. First, fighting against communism. And later against communalism, which led to Separation from Malaysia, and independence. These bonds were tested again in the early years of independence.

In 1967, the British announced their intention to withdraw all their military forces from Singapore. Meanwhile, widespread industrial strife was deterring foreign investment. It meant an economic crisis was coming. The government had to act quickly to foster a more conducive environment for investment and to create jobs. It introduced new laws, which restored to employers their rights to hire and fire their employees and curtailed the unions’ powers. Not surprisingly, the unions found this difficult to accept.

The government worked with NTUC leaders to assure workers that their basic rights would be protected and this was the right thing to do for workers. But not everyone was persuaded. The perception grew that the unions were no longer effective. In the four years after independence, union membership fell by nearly a quarter.

A Turning Point

The NTUC therefore faced a pressing challenge: to fight for its own relevance and existence. In 1969, the NTUC held its “Modernisation Seminar”. The aim was not just to arrest the decline of union membership. But to look forward and define NTUC’s role in an industrialising new economy, an industrialising Singapore. The stakes were high. Devan Nair chaired the Seminar and said, the Labour Movement was caught “in a race between modernisation and extinction”. Either you modernise, transform yourself or you perish and go extinct. He argued that workers were ultimately interested in salaries and bonuses, and not in strikes or a communist state. And therefore, unless the Labour Movement reformed itself, it would fall short of its responsibility to improve the lives of workers.

This Modernisation Seminar was a pivotal moment in the history of NTUC. Both PAP Ministers and NTUC leaders were convinced that a revitalised and forward-looking NTUC would be the right partner for the government to build a better future. A strong Labour Movement would spur workers to give their best, fully confident that they would receive their fair share as Singapore grew and prospered. Indeed this was what happened.

NTUC’s refreshed mission ushered in a new era of industrial relations, based not on confrontation but on collaboration. As part of its new mission, NTUC launched social enterprises. It set up cooperatives like NTUC Income and FairPrice. As well as childcare centres, at a time when there was no market these services. It was doing national service, but also meeting its members’ needs. The employers played their part too, treating the unions as partners and not as adversaries. They later formed Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). From the union’s point of view, this was the employers’ trade union. SNEF celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. A week ago, they had a formal celebration which DPM Heng Swee Keat attended. We should not miss this chance to wish SNEF and Brother Robert Yap a happy 40th anniversary too.

Only in Singapore do such things happen.

Our unique tripartite model has supported decades of sustained, rapid economic growth for Singapore, and seen us through many rough spots. In 1985, Singapore encountered our first major recession. I was then at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). Mr Ong Teng Cheong was The NTUC Secretary-General was Mr Ong Teng Cheong. As the situation worsened and the clouds darkened, we gathered the union leaders at the Conference Hall.

It was a sombre meeting. Mr Ong and I spoke to them. We had a very hard message to convey. We explained how grave things were. How our business costs had got out of line and made Singapore uncompetitive. And why drastic action was needed, including cutting CPF by 15 percentage points and implementing wage restraint.

Many more dialogues followed. Other ministers and union leaders joined in, to persuade workers of what we needed to do. Workers could see the job losses for themselves. The cancelled orders. They understood the message. They accepted the bitter medicine. But ultimately, they supported the tough measures not because of our explanations. It was also because that generation of union leaders, including Mr Ong Teng Cheong, had earned their trust. Fortunately, the medicine worked faster than we expected. By the next year, the economy was already picking up.

That unforgettable experience, unforgettable for those of us who went through it, reinforced the bonds between the government and the unions, as well as with employers too. It was a powerful demonstration of tripartism at work. And it convinced many more MNCs to invest in Singapore, which created more good jobs for Singaporeans.

Subsequent generations of government, union and business leaders have sustained these bonds. Government has kept faith with the workers, we restored CPF rates whenever economic conditions permitted. Employers played their part, they shared their pain of economic downturns, they prioritised jobs, they treated retrenchment as a last resort. Union leaders cooperated with government and employers to find solutions to difficult problems in the crisis and afterwards.

For example, in the 1990s, we needed to restructure the power industry. This was a complex effort which took a decade. We hived off the Electricity Department from the Public Utilities Board, we corporatised it to become SingPower, and subsequently restructured it into different pieces – the gencos, the power grid, the gas supply. We built a more efficient industry, to deliver more reliable and affordable electricity supplies to industries and to our homes. Singaporeans benefited from the results. But the restructuring had a major impact on the workers in the power industry. It was very destructive, very upsetting and very difficult for them.

I was still overseeing MTI at that time and worked closely with the Public Utilities Board Staff Union (PUBSU) and PUB Daily-Rated Employees’ Union (PUBDREU), which later merged to form the Union of Power & Gas Employees (UPAGE).

The union leaders worked hard to persuade their members and helped those affected by the changes. The late Brother Nithiah Nandan from the PUBDREU played a crucial role. So did Brother Nachiappan Sinniah (Nachi) from the PUBSU. Brother Nachi sadly left us earlier this year. He and I had stayed in touch over the years. He would update me on how things were in the power industry, as it went through ups and downs. He would watch my speeches and press conferences and regularly send me messages of feedback and support. Whether it was New Year or May Day, I would hear from him and exchange greetings and update one another.

Even after he retired, Brother Nachi continued imparting his knowledge and experience to younger unionists. He showed them how to champion workers’ interests, while building trust with employers and the government to achieve win-win outcomes. We need more union leaders like him.

The tripartite partners overcame many major recessions and crises together. They happened regularly, at least once every decade: We went through the Asian Financial Crisis. We endured SARS. We were hit by the Global Financial Crisis. Each time, the trust between the workers, businesses and government held, and proved crucial. And each time we knew it would happen again and we would need this trust.

Now with COVID-19, we are going through the crisis not of a decade, but of a generation. But when we look back at our record of how we have overcome past crises, COVID-19 does not look quite so daunting.

This last year, NTUC’s dedication to its mission has truly come to the fore. You protect workers in every way. When retrenchments were unavoidable, for example in the aviation industry and banking, the unions ensured that they were carried out fairly and responsibly. I met some unionists recently, preparing for this Rally. They shared with me their experiences helping retrenched workers. It was not easy for them. But they felt a sense of mission, cushioning the blow for the affected workers, helping them get back on their feet, helping them find and settle into new jobs.

Union leaders worked hard to help workers make full use of all the government schemes – Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), Jobs Growth Initiative (JGI), and the Self-Employed Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). And you encouraged workers to take the long view, to accept immediate sacrifices to keep businesses going, to make it easier for employers to hold on to their staff. Because of your efforts, although this downturn was worse than any we had gone through before, our local employment did not plunge. It went down a little bit and unemployment went up. But now unemployment is coming down again and our employment numbers, in fact, have gone up a little, compared to where we were the previous year.

Today, on May Day, I would like to say a big thank you to all our brothers and sisters for your tireless efforts over the past year, for your “never-say-die” spirit, which has helped us come through COVID-19 together.

A brighter outlook

Looking ahead, our economic outlook has brightened considerably. The global recession has been less protracted than we initially feared. Europe is still struggling to contain COVID-19. But the US is expected to make a strong recovery on the back of a large stimulus package, and good progress vaccinating its population.

China’s economy is performing strongly too. These external trends give us confidence in our own prospects. MTI’s earlier forecast for the year was 4% to 6% growth. Barring a setback to the global economy and provided our domestic COVID-19 situation remains stable, there is a very good chance we can achieve 6% or better this year.

Of course, even 6% growth will only bring us back to where we were before COVID-19 struck. Some sectors, like aviation and tourism, will not recover soon. And now we see new strains of COVID-19 emerging. We are watching our own situation, and it can easily and quickly turn bad again. After a long period when we had few community cases, in the last few days, several new community clusters have emerged. Some are quite big and worrying.

The government is doing everything we can to prevent these clusters from spreading further into the community. We will have to be agile and decisive with our response, and tighten measures promptly where it is necessary, to clamp down on the spread and avoid going into a second circuit breaker.

I hope Singaporeans work with us, and not let down our guard. It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon. Let us keep jogging and keep ourselves safe. Do not make the mistakes other countries have done – celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down, and cause another wave to come; very often worse than the first. And more nasty, drastic measures become necessary. If we have to do another lockdown like last year’s Circuit Breaker, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery. Let us not make it happen.

One factor that has helped us keep COVID-19 under control is the unremitting efforts and sacrifices of our workers. Our healthcare workers have been on the frontline. They have been testing, vaccinating, and treating patients. Going beyond the call of duty to keep everyone safe. Thank you for your dedication and courage.

Our aviation workers have had their livelihoods severely impacted. Passenger flights remain mostly grounded. But cargo flights are still flying, and many workers have returned to man these flights. But we do not many aircrews to serve and smile on these flights. Quite a number of our aircrew have joined the fight against COVID-19.

They have become patient care ambassadors, contact tracers and Safe Distancing Ambassadors. Where they go, people can recognise them; the Changi style that is the SIA standard. They have made a contribution and they have made themselves invaluable. We have now set up a secure system for testing and isolating passengers arriving in Singapore. Almost all our frontline workers have been vaccinated. And we are making steady progress vaccinating all of Singapore residents.

With these conditions falling into place, we will be able to open travel safely, step by step, especially to lower risk countries. The aviation business still has a long way to go before a full recovery, but at last we are catching glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel.

Our construction workers have experienced COVID-19 at ground zero. We must continue to ensure their wellbeing, health and safety, whether on worksites, in the migrant worker dormitories, or travelling to and from work. Some are Singaporeans, some are migrant workers. All of them are our brothers are sisters, and we look after all of them. We have put out the huge outbreak in the dormitories, and we have got everybody back to work. But the safe management measures which are still necessary have burdened the industry.

The manpower crunch, because some of the migrant workers have gone home, has added to its problems. Projects have been delayed. Costs have gone up. The recent ban on travellers from India has worsened the situation for the construction industry. We are working on emergency legislation to address this severe disruption and share the burden more fairly between the different parties – contractors, developers, and buyers. And I hope we will introduce the legislation in the next sitting of Parliament.

I have mentioned just three sectors which are particularly affected. In other sectors, workers have been affected by COVID-19 too. Some more, some less; but nobody has been left untouched.

Throughout this crisis, the government has provided relief and grants to help companies tide over this recession. Across last year and this year, we are drawing more than $50bn from our past reserves to support businesses and workers.  It is an unprecedented draw. But as the economy recovers, we have to recalibrate our support to be at a more sustainable level.

When I met the union leaders, I asked “How are things?”. They all told me: “The JSS is marvellous!”. Then they all asked: “Please sir, can JSS please be extended longer?” I said we would think carefully about it. But please remember: JSS is artificial life support. It keeps us breathing for a while, but it does not cure us and it does not last forever. We must find a way to fully recover, get back on our feet, and build new muscles, to move Singapore forward again.

Seizing new opportunities

We must prepare ourselves for life after COVID-19. What will this future be like? We do not know for sure. But we can already see some trends, which the pandemic has accelerated, for example, we talk about digitalisation, automation, and sustainability. These are words you have heard many times over the last few months. What do they mean?

Let me give you one concrete small example for each one, so you understand what we are talking about, what we are trying to do, and why I think we can do it.

First, digitalisation. For years, we have tried to encourage hawkers to go digital, without very much success. Many hawkers did not think digitalisation was worth the investment, given their small scale. Besides, customers were used to queuing up at the hawker centre to order and paying in cash. But when we were forced into the Circuit Breaker last year, many hawkers had no choice but to adopt digitalisation and go online.

An entrepreneurial second-generation hawker, Melvin Chew, set up a Facebook Group, called “Hawkers United – Dabao 2020” to help hawkers advertise online. The software engineer created, a simple order form on WhatsApp, to make it less daunting for older hawkers to take their business online. Other hawkers jumped on the platforms of food delivery companies, like Grab, Deliveroo and Foodpanda.

Now, if you want Char Kway Teow or Roti Prata, you can get them from more than 1,300 hawkers who offer some form of online delivery. And if you want to pay via e-payments, more than half of all hawkers have adopted e-payments. So even if you are queuing up at a hawker stall now, chances are you can e-pay using a QR code!

Secondly, automation. If you own a dog or a cat, you probably have heard of Pet Lovers’ Centre. It is Singapore's oldest and largest chain of pet supplies stores. During the Circuit Breaker, it had to close all 70 of its retail stores. But online orders surged, because pets still had to be fed and looked after. To cope, Pet Lovers Centre quickly developed a new system to track inventory.

And they also upgraded their warehouse with a new automated storage and retrieval system, with support from Enterprise Singapore. Employees no longer needed to spend long hours in the warehouse, manually locating and retrieving items. They simply press a few buttons, and a robot delivers the item to them for packing.

With these automation projects, Pet Lovers Centre’s productivity and warehouse storage capacity have more than doubled. It has put itself in a stronger position to ramp up its business when the economy picks up. It has helped the staff too, because morale has also gone up. Employees have picked up new skills, become more productive and are paid more. That is automation - one small example that has to be replicate thousands of times across our economy and society.

Third, sustainability. Sunseap is a clean energy solutions provider company based in Singapore. It is installing one of our largest floating solar farms in the Straits of Johor off Woodlands. Installing solar panels is a skilled, technical job that pays quite well. But it is also hard outdoor work, under the sun. In Singapore, it is mostly done by foreign workers. Like other companies, Sunseap faced a manpower crunch during COVID-19.

But the CEO told me that with a bit of job redesign, and support from NTUC, he was able to train young Singaporeans to take up the jobs, as solar technicians and engineers. It helped that young Singaporeans are enthusiastic about climate change and renewable energy, and they know these fields will become increasingly important. New jobs have been created and sustainability takes a step forward, and we make progress.

Digitalisation, automation and sustainability. These are new trends that we must get ahead of. Then we can seize opportunities that would come. And create new, better paying jobs for our people.

But for our workers to benefit, they have to have the right skills. Every May Day Rally, I lecture again and again about lifelong learning. The Government is investing heavily in SkillsFuture and will spend about $1.4bn over the next few years. This year, I would like to remind everybody, please use your SkillsFuture credits! Take a course, learn something useful, and make yourself more employable, more productive and more secure.

The NTUC is a critical partner for the government to transform our workforce. e2i is doing good work, building up our training ecosystem. Beyond that, NTUC has recently formed over 600 Company Training Committees (CTCs). CTCs identify capability gaps, create new competencies, and train workers for companies. They help workers gain the skills and capability early ahead of time, so that they can switch into new roles and jobs more easily. And not wait until the jobs are at risk, by when it is too late.

Sunseap, the solar energy company, is one company NTUC worked with to redesign its jobs to be more attractive to Singaporeans. Another company is Copthorne King’s Hotel. The Food, Drinks and Allied Workers’ Union (FDAWU) recently worked with the hotel to retrain its staff to pick up new skills. One of these employees was a reservation executive, Elsie Lee. Elsie was also trained in security and picked up a security license. So when tourists dried up during COVID-19, she could be easily redeployed to a new job.

CTCs show how NTUC is making itself relevant to workers. NTUC must continue to reinvent itself, because our workforce profile is also evolving. The proportion of PMETs has gone up: from slightly over half of our resident workforce a decade ago to about 60% today.

The number of gig workers has increased in three years to more than doubled, now to 70,000 gig workers. Which is why there was a such a response to the SIRS scheme during the downturn.  The population of older workers has also grown significantly. As Brother Ng Chee Meng said, NTUC has been reaching out to these different groups, to understand their specific needs and support each one of them with targeted relevant help.

And one of the groups that NTUC is reaching out to and focussing on are lower income workers. Happy to hear Brother Chee Meng’s announcement on the NTUC Foundation, starting off with $250 million. The Foundation will help sustain the many NTUC Care initiatives that support lower-income workers and their families, especially during difficult times like now, when it is tough to raise funds.

Protecting vulnerable groups in our society is a key priority also of the government. The government has been working with tripartite partners to extend the Progressive Wage Model to more sectors, like food services and retail. This is not just a theoretical exercise, but a practical, effective strategy to improve the lives of more lower wage workers. We plan to more than double the number of workers covered under the Progressive Wage Model over the next few years.

And we are working on some other plans to support lower income workers too. Zaqy is coordinating this from inside the Ministry of Manpower. NTUC is involved, and I intend to speak about these plans at the National Day Rally.

Cementing ties between PAP and NTUC

As NTUC transforms itself, we need to keep the symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC strong and vibrant.

On the ground, party activists work closely with unionists to engage workers directly. Young PAP and Young NTUC are doing more activities together. MPs are deployed as union advisers. Our branches and unionists are working together on joint initiatives, for example, in UCare to help lower income members and their families. This close connection and joint activity ensures that we find out quickly and accurately about the concerns and aspirations of workers, and we can work out solutions and improve their lives.

In Parliament, the PAP has always had a sizeable Labour Movement contingent. MPs Like Desmond Choo and Patrick Tay, who have been MPs for several terms. In the last GE, we brought in some new ones, like Fahmi Aliman, and Yeo Wan Ling, our most recent female MP from the NTUC. Wan Ling is following a well-trodden path. Quite a few of our women MPs have come from the Labour Movement, like Yu-Foo Yee Soon, Josephine Teo, and Halimah Yacob, now President.

I highlight this because a week from now it is Mother’s Day, and also because this year we are celebrating the Year of the Woman. I hope we have more female MPs, and in particular, more Labour Movement MPs like them. Such a strong and diverse Labour contingent ensures that workers’ concerns are well represented in Parliament.

At the leadership level, Ministers and NTUC leaders work closely together. I regularly meet and exchange views with Brother Chee Meng on workers’ issues. Before I settled my Cabinet changes last week, I discussed my plans with him. I asked if Koh Poh Koon could return to government from the NTUC, so that he could be appointed to MOM. I explained that I wanted an office holder in MOM who is familiar with the NTUC. In place of Poh Koon, I offered to send Chee Hong Tat to NTUC, to carry on what Poh Koon has been working on these last three years. Glad that Brother Chee Meng, Sister Mary and the NTUC Central Committee agreed. I called up Brother Chee Hong Tat and spoke to him, and I am very glad to report that he agreed too!


Ever since the Modernisation Seminar in 1969, a strong Labour Movement has been an essential partner in Singapore’s progress. In many developed countries, union memberships have been steadily declining. But in Singapore, our Labour Movement has gone from strength to strength. And the numbers are going up. During the COVID-19 downturn last year, numbers have gone up because people know that they need the union in a crisis. COVID-19 has reminded us again how vital a strong Labour Movement is. As Singapore presses ahead in an uncertain world, we must keep our Labour Movement strong, and we must strengthen its bonds with a pro-labour government.

The PAP will always stand solidly by the NTUC and by workers. You are at the heart of what we do. You are the reason why the PAP was founded. You are the reason why the PAP exists today.

On your 60th birthday, I ask the NTUC to remain steadfast in your mission, and strengthen your close partnership with the government, and to improve the lives of Singapore workers. Whatever storms that come our way, and we can be sure this is not our last one, let us make sure that Singapore will continue to grow and prosper, united and strong, for many years to come.

Happy 60th anniversary NTUC, and a Happy May Day!

On your 60th birthday, I ask the NTUC to remain steadfast in your mission, and strengthen your close partnership with the government, and to improve the lives of Singapore workers.

PM Lee Hsien Loong