PM Lee Hsien Loong at May Day Rally 2024

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 1 May 2024

Transcript of speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at May Day Rally 2024 at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre on 1 May 2024.


President of NTUC, Sister Thanaletchimi
Secretary-General Brother Ng Chee Meng
Brothers and Sisters
Comrades from the PAP
My fellow Singaporeans


A very good morning and a very happy May Day to everyone of you. I have spoken at almost every May Day Rally since I became PM in 2004. This will be my last major speech as PM, before I hand over to DPM Lawrence Wong on 15 May. I am very happy to be addressing you, my Brothers and Sisters in the NTUC. I would like to thank you, specifically our Secretary-General, for his very warm words and your very warm honours to me, and for the video which brings back so many touching moments from so many years of interaction, of engagement, of working together with brothers and sisters, with friends on the ground, and many companies and many unions taking Singapore forward together. You have made my job today of making this speech a little bit harder.

From the beginning, so much of what we have achieved has depended on the unions and workers. The tripartite partnership between the Labour Movement, Employers, and the Government, underpinned by the symbiotic relationship between the NTUC and the PAP, has been absolutely crucial to Singapore’s success. It has enabled us to grow our economy, weather economic storms, and improve the lives of workers, including in these last 20 years. So today I want to say a big personal thank you to the Labour Movement and to each and every one of you. Thank you very much!

Looking Back

We have come a long way since Independence in 1965.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team overcame tremendous odds to take Singapore from Third World to First. With neither hinterland nor natural resources, they forged an improbable nation, and laid a strong foundation for future generations. They established multiracialism as the Singapore creed; they developed the economy, built up the SAF; and made home ownership, education, and healthcare available to all. They created a government with a reputation for integrity and competence; and secured our place in the world.

Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as our second Prime Minister. He showed that it was possible to come after Mr Lee and take Singapore further forward, with a different style for a different era, with a different generation of people. Chok Tong was a sincere and direct leader. His personal touch helped people to understand what was at stake, and persuaded them to accept tough decisions. He led us through difficult times and painful economic restructuring, including the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS. He launched national conversations on the sort of society we aspired to become, and strengthened our sense of community and national belonging. Under Chok Tong’s leadership, Singapore grew and matured. We became more vibrant and open, and also more resilient and cohesive.

As PM, I have sought to build on these strengths. Working closely with Singaporeans, we have improved everyone’s lives.

First, we grew the economy. Over two decades, we have become much better off. Our strategies to transform and upgrade the economy worked. Investments in promising sectors, such as biotech, IT, transportation, and financial services, they paid off. Our economic base diversified. We climbed the value chain, going from factories and production lines to R&D in pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology. Now we are keeping up with dramatic breakthroughs in AI (Artificial Intelligence). We expanded and deepened international trade partnerships, and enhanced our role as a regional hub and a global node. All these attracted MNCs to Singapore, and also helped Singapore companies to develop new markets overseas. From time to time, we encountered headwinds. Right now, the economy is growing, but everyone worries about inflation and the rising cost of living. The Government has expanded support measures, including CDC vouchers and many other forms of assistance and these have helped many households, and thankfully, inflation is gradually easing off. But despite these worries and occasional setbacks, taking a longer view, economic growth has consistently delivered better jobs and higher wages for Singapo-reans. Our quality of life has improved across the board, including for those with lower incomes.

We built new HDB towns and high-quality public housing, with green spaces, schools, polyclinics, and community amenities. For example, Punggol today is unrecognisable from the Punggol of 20 years ago. When I first became PM, most of the new town was yet to be built. It was bare land, prepared but not constructed. People thought of it as a desolate, ulu place – the older ones amongst you will remember exactly what I mean. At one early NDR, I painted our vision for “Punggol 21”, to set a new standard for urban living, where Singaporeans could live, work and play. Today, Punggol 21 is a reality. It is a vibrant, attractive town, full of young families, and the grandparents and parents, full of life. In a few months, SIT (Singapore Institute of Technology) will move in to its new campus, next to the Punggol Digital District. We have Punggol Waterway, we have Coney Island, and park connectors which offer lush greenery and welcome relief from the urban hustle and bustle. If you are looking for a beautiful place to take your wedding photos, or perhaps somewhere romantic to propose to your girlfriend or boyfriend, Punggol Waterway is a great choice!

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Punggol Waterway


The older towns have not been left behind. We have MUP, LUP, HIP, SERS, and so many other initials, alphabet soup, but each one a different upgrading programme. We rejuvenated older estates, kept them up to date and made them fit for a more elderly population. This is why, unlike public housing projects elsewhere in the world, our HDB estates never turn into slums or ghettoes. For example, in Ang Mo Kio, we have upgraded nearly all the flats, and spruced up the neighbourhoods. We introduced Silver Zones and Friendly Streets to slow traffic down, and put up colourful block signs to help older residents remember their way home. We created convenient access to a library, the Ang Mo Kio Hub, nursing homes, and town gardens. We revitalised Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. It is across the road but we count it as ours. The old concrete storm canal was restored to a natural state. It is now a beautiful meandering river with wildflowers along its banks, and sometimes otter families too. The park is for old folks and young people alike, for both pets and human beings, for lantern festivals as well as National Day celebrations. Occasionally, our housing programme got disrupted, and we experienced shortages and long wait times, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed construction. But HDB has worked hard to catch up, and I am glad that things are now getting back on track.

Public transport has improved too. The MRT map used to be very simple. It is just two lines, two colours: Red (North-South) and green (East-West) lines. Later we added purple – the North-East line. Today, the map is much more colourful, with yellow (The Circle Line), blue (The Downtown Line), and brown (The Thomson-East Coast line). Our public transport system is convenient, reliable, and affordable. We did once have an issue with rail reliability. The trains were breaking down too often. But SMRT and LTA engineers worked together, hard on it, day and night, including our brothers and sisters from the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU). Thank you! So today the train performance has improved significantly. In Singapore, we measure everything including the frequency of breakdowns, reliability of service. We know that nowadays our trains are as reliable as, or better than, most other MRT systems in the world. Surveys rank it amongst the best. Of course, Singaporeans have high expectations. If you ask them, they will tell you, you can still do better; and we will keep on making it better. We are growing the MRT network, and there are two new lines to come, akan datang but starting work already: the Cross Island Line (light green) which will pass through Ang Mo Kio, amongst other places and the Jurong Region Line (light blue). By 2030, eight in ten households will be within a 10-minute walk of a train station. So while it is not possible for every household to own a car, we will make sure everyone can get around conveniently on world-class public transport.

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PM Lee visiting Gali Batu MRT depot on the first day of Chinese New Year in February 2018.


We also invested heavily in a first-class healthcare system, accessible and affordable to all. If you need a cataract operation, especially the older folks, you can get it at a subsidised and affordable fee, and within a reasonable time. Everybody. If you have suffered a heart attack, that you cannot wait for a reasonable time, every second counts. Once you arrive at the A&E you will be triaged, diagnosed, rushed into the operating theatre and a surgeon will insert a tiny balloon into your heart artery, inflate it, open the blockage, restore blood flow, and save your life. In Singapore, all these takes on average about 50 minutes. This is what they call the “door to balloon time”. Door – you enter the A&E. Balloon - the little balloon inflates, your heart muscle is saved, your life is saved. Fifty minutes on average in Singapore. The international standard for this door to balloon time is 90 minutes. It means that in Singapore, if you have a heart attack, which unfortunately many people do, you have a much better chance of being treated in time and staying alive. So if you have an emergency, the system is there to take care of you. If the country has an emergency, we will make sure that the system is there to take care of it too because we have kept our healthcare system up to scratch, we tuned it up after COVID-19 and we want to make sure that if another pandemic like COVID-19 hits us, we can be more assured that we will be ready to take the load and see us through safely.

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PM Lee visiting the Outpatient Rehabilitation Centre at Sengkang General Hospital in March 2019.


Besides improving everyone’s lives, we are creating brighter prospects and wider opportunities for the next generation, for our young. We transformed our education system, we took a broader and more holistic approach, and promoted lifelong learning. We made sure that every child can benefit fully from our school system, whatever their family circumstances. No one drops out today because he or she cannot afford the fees, or needs to work to support the family. We poured a lot more resources into pre-schools and infant care. We upgraded the preschool profession, created many more places, and increased government subsidies to make the fees very affordable to every family. In fact, for a lower-income family, if you go to an Anchor-Operated Kindergarten, it can cost you $5 a month, thereabouts. We are determined to give all our kids, regardless of their social backgrounds, the best start in life, beginning as early as we can. And we are starting to see results – preschool attendance has improved; kids now arrive at Primary 1 better prepared to learn.

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Students from Yew Tee Primary School.


In school, students have multiple options and diverse pathways, which cater to a wide range of talents and interests. They are not limited to just traditional arts and science courses. Many schools offer specialised programmes – music, dance, sports, robotics – including neighbourhood schools all over Singapore. So when we say that “every school is a good school”, that is a good slogan. Not every slogan is a good slogan, but in Singapore every school is a good school. It is a good slogan because it contains a lot of truth. In Singapore, unlike in some other countries, your postal code does not determine your destiny. What do I mean? Where you live, which corner of Singapore it may be, government or opposition, HDB or private property, it does not matter. The schools there are good, the schools all over the island are good. If you have talent, you can rise. Whatever your talents, you have opportunities. We make sure that there are full opportunities for everyone. The results show it. Today, nearly half of each cohort graduates from one of our autonomous universities, equipped with marketable skills, ready to join the workforce. They find jobs readily, often even before they graduate. Unlike many other countries, we have no youth unemployment problem, we have no graduate unemployment problem. Young people take up jobs that did not even exist in their parents’ generation. They become data scientists, machine learning engineers, carbon traders, novel food biotechnologists – that means you take a plant and you make it look like wagyu beef – UX designers, social counsellors, even e-sports coaches. You sit down, you become good at playing computer games, you can make a living. Not everybody but some will, and there are many different paths, and many different avenues for success. These are just some of the new opportunities and choices that young Singaporeans have to realise their dreams – whatever they may aspire to be.

Even as the country progressed, we made every effort to leave no one behind. When I was sworn-in as PM, I promised to build a more inclusive Singapore: one where it is not every man for himself, but everyone working together to make things better for all of us. We innovated boldly in social policies, just as we did in education and healthcare. One of my earliest moves was to create Comcare, to bring together our many social programmes, enhance them further, and channel more resources to help the needy amongst us. We then launched Workfare to supplement the incomes of lower-wage workers, and later the Progressive Wage Model to level-up wages and skills in a sustainable way. KidStart now gives an extra boost to kids from disadvantaged homes. ComLink+ works with vulnerable families in rental flats, to uplift them and get them back on their feet. We strengthened other components of our social safety nets too: MediShield Life – to protect all Singaporeans against large hospital bills for life regardless of your health condition; CareShield Life – to provide basic financial support if you become disabled, and need long-term care; CPF Life – to improve retirement adequacy, and make sure that workers and their families will be provided for in old age; Silver Support – to help seniors who had lower incomes during their working lives, or perhaps they were homemakers; the Majulah Package – for 1.6 million Young Seniors who carry heavy family burdens; and we have taken care of the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations too, to whom we owe so much.

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PM Lee at the Thye Hwa Kwan Active Ageing Centre @ Bedok in August 2023.


Equally important, we empowered and mobilised activists and volunteers who care very much about building an inclusive society. Not just to feedback and demand services, but also to step forward and do their part; people like Mayor Denise Phua. The PAP fielded Denise as a candidate in 2006, at the General Election. When she came before the Secretary General’s Committee and we interviewed her, she told us the Government needed to do more to help kids with special needs. She spoke passionately about Pathlight School, the first autism-focussed school in Singapore, which she had recently helped to set up. We told her, if you take the lead, the Government will support you. She took up the challenge. She built up Pathlight into a well-known, well-run, popular choice for kids on the autism spectrum. Later, together with other activists and volunteers, Denise co-founded The Purple Parade movement. If you see me wearing purple on Instagram, you know why. Thousands of Singaporeans come together each year to support inclusion, and to celebrate the abilities of people with disabilities. They have a very good orchestra – if you listen to them, they are equal to many other orchestras in Singapore.

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Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Purple Parade in October 2022.


Such ground-up initiatives have raised the quality and standing of the special education sector, and shifted public mindsets. Singaporeans have become more ready to step up to help those in need. There is less stigma attached to people with disabilities. Parents are more willing to accept that their kid has special needs, and to seek and receive intervention early on. People with special needs have many more enabling opportunities. And this is a big part of leaving no Singaporean behind.

I am also proud of how Singaporeans take pride in our work and strive for excellence. Not everyone can be at the top of the totem pole, but whatever our role is in society, we take our responsibilities seriously, show mastery in our work, and try to do our jobs well. Whatever the role of the person is you are talking to, you talk to him as equals, you respect him, you engage him and 平起平坐. We are Singaporeans together. So often when talking to teachers, healthcare workers, public transport crew, Home Team and SAF personnel, private sector staff, employees, managers – I am struck by their pride and motivation to excel. They brief me knowledgeably and confidently. I ask them questions, they know how to answer. There is mutual respect and decorum; there is no bowing and scraping. All this, the trade unions helped us to establish. When teachers spend hours of their own time giving remedial lessons to students who need extra help, turning discipline cases into Edusave EAGLES Award winners – you cannot help but feel their commitment and passion. When policemen and SCDF personnel not only put their lives on the line at work, but also come forward as first responders even when off duty, and sometimes if they are on a date, their girlfriend comes forward to help too – that is not just training and discipline, but reflects a deep professionalism, self-motivation, and sense of duty. When healthcare teams go the extra mile for patients: not just the surgeon who operates on you, but also all the other healthcare professionals in the team – the Operating Theatre team, the nurses, the dietitians, the therapists – who look after you post-op, to ensure that you recover well and without complications. These are people who have not just a job, but a vocation, and a passion to serve. Ours is a society that takes pride in whatever we do, and makes a point of doing it well. A society that is egalitarian and meritocratic in its ethos; where those who have done well feel a sense of duty to give back to the society that nurtured them. This fundamental mindset permeates our whole society.

Because we got these fundamentals right, we were prepared and resilient when crises hit. In the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, we expected the worst. Nobody could tell what would happen to the global economy. We feared a prolonged deep recession, and mass unemployment. But with our strong reserves, we rolled out the Jobs Credit Scheme and Special Risk-Sharing Initiative, to help businesses and workers weather the storm. Unions worked with employers to cut costs, save jobs. These measures worked much better than we hoped, and our economy recovered faster than expected. As Lim Swee Say used to say, we upturned the downturn. More recently, COVID-19 gave us the fright of our lives. People were scared, because of all the unknowns: scared of the virus, scared to fall sick; worried about the economy, fearful for their jobs. We feared the worst, and it could easily have turned out that way. But Singaporeans worked together, and trusted and looked after one another. We drew deeply on our financial reserves, our social cohesion, and our shared determination to protect lives and livelihoods. The unions did their part again, so we not only pulled through but emerged stronger, faring much better than many other countries. We became a stronger people, a better society, and a more unified nation.

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Healthcare workers from Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.


Our track record of keeping our own house in order has been key to building up our standing in the world. Wherever I go, whether to a big or small country, whether to an advanced country in the West, or a developing state in Africa or Latin America, people have a high regard for Singapore. They may not know a lot about us, but they have heard enough to be impressed, and to want to emulate us. It is always humbling when I meet other leaders at international conferences who ask me: “Where are you from?” and after I introduce myself, they say: “I wish my country could be like Singapore”.

But we must never let this get to our heads. On the contrary, we must zealously uphold our reputation, and work hard to build it up, through active, creative, and principled diplomacy. Hence, we have spoken up on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Israel-Hamas war. We enhanced cooperation with our closest neighbours, and settled some longstanding issues with them – e.g. the Malayan Railways land deal with Malaysia, and the Expanded Framework Agreements with Indonesia. With big powers, we maintained good relations despite growing geopolitical tensions between them.

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PM Lee attending the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in San Francisco in November 2023.


At international forums like the UN, WTO, or Climate Change Conferences, we do our part, and strive to be a constructive and reliable player and we have built up a reputation. Singaporean Ministers and officials, they know their stuff and they make a contribution. This is how a small country can make friends, advance our interests, and stand tall.

Singaporeans have every reason to be proud of our international standing, proud of what we have achieved together, and proud to call ourselves Singaporeans. Long may this little red dot shine brightly in the world!

What makes Singapore work

The next chapter of the Singapore Story is off to a strong start. I see a very challenging period ahead. There are many uncertainties in the world: rising tensions and rivalry between big powers; deglobalisation and protectionism; technological advances and climate change; questions of war and peace. In many countries, people are anxious and worried and Singaporeans are concerned too. In fact, I would be worried if Singaporeans took the future lightly, and blithely assumed that we could simply cruise along, and all would be well. If you were not worried, I will be worried. Because as a small and open country, we will inevitably be caught up by powerful external forces and geopolitical currents. Our diverse society makes us especially vulnerable to what happens around us, outside Singapore.

But thankfully, compared to most other countries, we are not at all badly off. Still, we have to continue to focus on nation building, and to make the most of our strengths. The world has changed, and we must come up with updated creative responses, but some hard truths have not changed. These imperatives will stay relevant in the years ahead. So, let me highlight three of them to you.

First imperative, social cohesion. What do I mean? Race, language, and religion – these are the traditional fault lines in our society. We have made huge efforts to build a shared Singaporean identity, to live and work together harmoniously as a multiracial and multireligious society based on meritocracy and equal opportunity. We have made great progress in this. But we will always be subject to external forces that pull different segments of our population in different directions. We cannot disavow our diverse ethnic roots and religious affinities, we want to keep them: Chinese Singaporeans have links with China, some way or other; Indian Singaporeans with their various ancestral homes in India; Malay Singaporeans with the rest of our region, and with the global Muslim Ummah, the community of Muslims worldwide. These are real, emotional, historical, cultural, deep ties. They can be vulnerabilities, yet we do not want to lose these rich cultural and historical heritages. We have inherited them from our forefathers, and they contribute much to our Singaporean identity, our sense of who we are in the world. Because we did not just descend from Mars – we have long histories, proud histories, ancestors, heritages, traditions, many of which we want to keep for ourselves and pass on to our children and grandchildren. Therefore for us, racial and religious harmony will always be a continuing work in progress. Never think that we have “solved the problem” and that we have left it behind. It will always be with us.

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Religious leaders praying together at the Inter-Religious Organisation's (IRO) 70th anniversary gala dinner in August 2019.


And we also have to be conscious of other potential divisions in our society: between the “haves” and the “have-nots”; the “Singaporean-born” and “naturalised” citizens; “conservatives” and “liberals”; “current” and “future” generations. All these differences can be exploited politically, to pit Singaporeans one against another, and divide and weaken us. Hence, we have got to continue to work hard to overcome social stresses and tensions, to enlarge our common space, and strengthen our shared Singaporean identity. It is not a static identity. It grows and evolves over time. We are not a specimen in the museum – like that 10 years ago, like that 20 years ago, like that 50 years from now. It will grow, it will evolve. The world changes, we adapt, we move forward. We have to guide that evolution, as best as we can, sensitively and thoughtfully. That is why we moved on the tudung issue, and repealed Section 377A of the Penal Code. These were controversial and difficult issues, but I decided to tackle them, and not to let them fester or to pass them along to my successors. So we prepared the ground carefully, worked out practical compromises, and moved to a more sustainable, long-term position, while fostering mutual understanding and acceptance. Always, when we are dealing with controversial issues, we accept that differences exist, but we will avoid accentuating them. Accept them, do not accentuate them. Instead we foster compromise, strive to enlarge a common space, establish the broadest consensus possible. We will always have fault lines to watch and mind. Never forget, whatever our differences, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost. And only thus can we survive and thrive in a contested and fractured world.

Second, long term planning. It is the responsibility of every government in every country. Not just to deal with pressing, immediate problems, but also to have the vision and the sense of stewardship to peer beyond the horizon and plan far ahead. But most governments find it very hard to do. Many are consumed by immediate problems or political crises. They lack the support or the bandwidth to think further ahead. To put it in Singaporean language: Where got time? But the PAP Government has always planned and acted for the long term, deliberately and systematically. Look where we are gathered today for May Day – in an Integrated Resort (IR) at Marina Bay. When did this begin? The government started thinking about reclaiming land here in the 1960s, in the first years of our independence. The reclamation project began in 1971, more than 50 years ago. Then we had to let the reclaimed land settle, masterplan the new downtown, and build it phase by phase. 20 years ago (in 2004-2005), we started talking about IRs. This was one of my first major decisions as Prime Minister – whether or not to allow IRs in Singapore, which would introduce casino gambling to Singapore. After a full public debate, we decided to proceed, but with suitable safeguards in place. So, the IRs opened in 2010, just in time to catch the recovery from the Global Financial Crisis, and they took off. Today, we not only have the IRs, but also Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Barrage, Marina Reservoir, Marina South Downtown and an iconic skyline around the Bay. After half a century, today we have built a Marina Bay that we can all be proud of. But Marina Bay is not done – Singapore is not done. We will continue to grow and to develop Marina Bay – and Singapore – for decades to come.

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State Flag flypast over Marina Bay.


What do we want to see in Singapore, 50 years from now? Here are some plans already in the pipeline. We are building a new megaport at Tuas and a new Terminal 5 at Changi, to strengthen our air and sea hubs. We will reclaim a Long Island along the east coast, to protect ourselves from rising sea levels, and create more land and another freshwater reservoir. We always try to hit several birds with one stone. We will redevelop Paya Lebar after relocating Paya Lebar Airbase, as well as the Greater Southern Waterfront after PSA moves to Tuas, to create new spaces for future generations to live, work and play and accommodate a new NTUC Downtown South. We will decarbonise our economy to reach net zero carbon emissions, and do our part to mitigate climate change. It is going to be a very difficult journey, this last one, but we have to do it. I have no doubt that the next team and their successors will conceive more creative and ambitious projects, which will challenge us, inspire us, and take our country to the next level. These projects will take decades to come to fruition. They are acts of faith in Singapore’s future. Mr Lee Kuan Yew memorably said, shortly after independence: “Over 100 years ago, this was a mudflat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.” This must forever be our mindset: thinking long term, working towards it with patience and determination, and building lasting strengths for Singapore, way beyond our own generation, for the next 50 years, for the next 100 years.

This brings me to the third fundamental principle, imperative – political stability and trust. We cannot sustain long-term planning and effort if our politics is fractured. The whole Singapore system is anchored on a strong base of trust between the people and their government. The people elected the PAP government. The PAP government works hard to maintain the people’s trust and support. It shows, through words and through deeds, that it has the nation’s best interests at heart, and is improving your lives. Therefore, at each election, 15 times in a row, the PAP has won a renewed mandate, fair and square, and continued to deliver results for Singaporeans.

Very few other countries work like this. You name me one. We were fortunate to start off on the right footing. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong and their teams established the fundamentals of good government. They were unshakeably committed to meritocracy and incorruptibility. They worked hard to build a system that would endure beyond their own terms as PM. My team and I have done our best to steward Singapore, and safeguard its future. Our successors must do the same.

Getting our politics right is absolutely crucial. Please understand: we have succeeded, and Singapore has made exceptional economic and social gains, because our system is exceptional. It is not because we are ordinary, we pass; it is because we are exceptional - distinction with star. Then only can you have performance that is a distinction with star. The system does not have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble. Even if we just become ordinary, average, we will already be in serious trouble. Because we have no natural resources, no hinterland; 700 square kilometres is nothing. If our politics becomes like other countries, we will end up worse than other countries. Not the same as them, but worse off. Graver still, if our system malfunctions – becomes beset by populism, tribalism, nativism, or obsessed by short term gains, like some other countries – then we will certainly be sunk. All our reserves will not last very long, nor will they count for much. There is no need to ask how much money is there in the bank, you can have a lot. But if you have gone that way, and the country has gone wrong, it would not save you. Therefore, it is crucial that all of us uphold this ethos of exceptionalism and excellence; it is crucial that we maintain political stability. The system will evolve with time. But it has to evolve in a way that continues to serve Singapore’s interests, serve your interests. That gives us the best shot at building a brighter future for Singapore.

The Labour Movement understands this well. You have been with the PAP since the very beginning, long before independence. Our symbiotic partnership was born in a crucible of fire. Mr Lee Kuan Yew started on his political journey by representing the postal workers’ union in the postmen’s strike in 1952. He championed their cause and won them fair terms from the colonial government. When Mr Lee and his comrades formed the PAP two years later in 1954 to contest the Legislative Assembly elections (in 1955), the postmen mobilised and helped him win his first election in Tanjong Pagar. You probably know this and you should know this. But you may not know that when the postmen’s union approached Mr Lee to act for them in 1952, when they first approached him, it was just around the time that I was being born. And so when my father visited my mother and me in KKH (Kandang Kerbau Hospital), instead of admiring his new baby he was telling my mother all about the postmen’s union and his plans! As a young boy, I met many union activists. They would visit our home at Oxley Road for meetings, especially during election campaigns. I knew that my father was the legal adviser to many trade unions. I was not quite sure what being a legal adviser meant, but I took great pride in this. To me, the unions were on the side of the good, supporting the PAP to fight for independence from the British. So they were the good guys. And indeed, without union support, the PAP could not have won the 1959 General Election to take power for the first time. After Separation, with the support of the non-Communist unions, the PAP led Singapore safely through the difficult first years of nation¬hood, and took Singapore from Third World to First.

Tripartism played a vital role in this journey. The crucial turning point was NTUC’s Modernisation Seminar in 1969, which was when we replaced the old adversarial approach, unions versus employers, with a cooperative, tripartite strategy, based on trust and confidence. We formed the National Wages Council (NWC), established a constructive process for tripartite annual wage negotiations, and assured workers of their fair share of economic growth. We built up the habit of cooperation and mutual trust between the tripartite partners. In 1985, Singapore ran into a sudden, severe recession. We had to slash business costs to restore competi¬tiveness, including by cutting employer CPF contributions. It was effectively a wage cut for everyone, and it was a most difficult and painful decision. I remember this vividly, because I chaired the Economic Committee which made this recommendation. I was grateful to have the full support of Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was then the NTUC Secretary-General, and the union leaders. Together, we persuaded the workers that the CPF cut was unavoidable, and that it would help secure their jobs. Fortunately for the doctors the bitter medicine worked, and events proved us right – the economy revived within the year. No other country could have implemented such a draconian policy, gotten unions and workers to accept it, and made it work. But Singapore workers knew we had their backs. And we still do, we will always have your backs. In the following decades, we ran into even bigger crises. The Asian Financial Crisis (1997) was followed by the Global Financial Crisis (2008). Most recently, we endured the crisis of a generation – the COVID-19 pandemic. But by now the tripartite partners knew what to do, and each time we pulled through, with our workers safe, and our partner¬ship strengthened.

It is not only during crises that tripartism proves its worth. Singapore’s dramatic progress would have been impossible without tripartism. Neither would it have happened had the PAP government not done its part. The PAP has worked hard to provide Singapore with the good govern¬ment that you deserve. We have not only created prosperity and progress for our nation, but ensured that every Singaporean benefits from the fruits of growth. Through the symbiotic relationship with the PAP, the NTUC has done right by workers, and helped them and their families to enjoy a better life. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said at the NTUC’s 50th anniversary in 2011, I quote him: “Growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers, shared not only directly in wage increases but indirectly in better homes, better schools, better hospitals, better playing fields and generally a healthier environment for families to bring up their children.” Today, in the 70th year of the PAP’s founding, and after 20 years as your PM, I can tell you, in all good conscience, that both the NTUC and the PAP have delivered on our promises to Singaporeans. Therefore, once again, thank you very much, NTUC!

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PM Lee at May Day Rally 2023.


In future, the unions will play an even more crucial role, as we deal with geopolitical and economic uncertainty. I am glad the unions are transforming yourselves to remain relevant. You reached beyond blue-collar workers, to look after graduates, professionals, platform workers, and the self-employed. As Sec-Gen said just now, 45% of your members are now PMEs. Well done! You formed Company Training Committees in hundreds of firms, to plan and execute training and upgrading programmes together with the employers. Your Sec-Gen did not brag about his negotiating skills apropos this item, but when he put it up he also asked for a budget and we also agreed within 30 seconds. You found ways to be with it, and be hip, in order to reach out to young workers, even while they are still in post-secondary institutions, through nEbO (nobody Enjoys being Ordinary), another Lim Swee Say coinage, and the Young NTUC.

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PM Lee with youth representatives in the Young NTUC committee at the 2023 NTUC National Delegates Conference.


You pushed for stronger support for families and caregiving, and greater gender equality, and showed by example – you elected three female NTUC Presidents, and you nurtured the first female President of the Republic of Singapore. Before every May Day Rally, I meet union leaders to hear their feedback and concerns. This year, they talked about getting workers to understand how fierce the competition is from other countries, and what we must do to stay in the game. How older workers worry about keeping up with technological progress, while younger ones want work-life balance. They also discussed the future of the tripartite partnership, and how it must carry on with the next generation of leaders. I have always found the unionists’ views pertinent and invaluable, and I am sure my successors will too.

Looking ahead, there are certainly dark clouds on the horizon, but also many opportunities. Even in a deglobalising, distrustful world, countries still have to find some way to work with one another. When rivals harbour doubts about one another, trust¬worthiness commands a premium, and Singapore can be a trusted partner. When countries find it hard to maintain a steady path, and decide every few months to change directions and switch leaders, Singapore’s stability and predictability is a tremendous advantage. One day after I have stepped down, I will tidy up all the letters of congratulations that I have written to foreign leaders in my 20 years as PM. We can compile a book. But it is not a joke. Because with the churn, there is no hope of consistent direction of strong leadership, of mobilising the population, of pressing ahead and making great progress. But we have done that.

We have built a strong foundation for our future generations: with adequate reserves to tide over extreme difficulties; with international respect that gives us a seat at the table; with a cohesive society that hangs together in the darkest hours; and a vibrant and inclusive economy that creates opportunities and hope for all Singaporeans.

Make the most of these advantages. Never throw them away. Stay united, think long term, and maintain our political stability. That is the way forward for Singapore.

Our Singapore Story: The Next Chapter

My fellow Singaporeans: this is my 40th year in politics. It has been my great honour to have served you, including as your PM. I have strived to lead you and to govern Singapore in the way you deserve, to mobilise Singaporeans to show what we can do together. I have also prepared a leadership team to succeed me that deserves your confidence and support. As I prepare to hand over Singapore in good order to my successor, I feel a sense of satisfaction and completeness. I have done my duty, and I am very happy I chose this path of public service all those many years ago.

But leading a country is never a one-man job. It is always the effort of a national team. Your unwavering support enabled us to get here, with the country in good shape and heading in the right direction.

I am deeply grateful: to the Ministers, MPs, and grassroots and union leaders, who stood with me throughout, more than one generation of them, some of whom have already passed on; to our outstanding Public Service, committed to improving Singaporeans’ lives; to the Labour Movement, working tirelessly to improve the everyday lives of workers and their families. Most of all, I am humbled by and grateful for Singaporeans’ trust, confidence, and support. To all of you, I say a very big thank you!

I will continue to support the new PM and his team, and to help Singapore to succeed in every way I can.

Lawrence Wong will be taking over from me in two weeks’ time, 15 May. I have every confidence in Lawrence and his team. The 4G will have their hands full dealing with issues which will arise, and realising their Forward SG agenda. I ask all Singaporeans to rally behind them, and work together to make Singapore succeed, for your sake. That is our path forward: for each generation to steward Singapore to the best of its ability; so that the next generation can take on a better Singapore, and in turn lead our nation onwards and upwards. Thank you very much!

Majulah Singapura!

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PM Lee at May Day Rally 2024.