Transcript of Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the NTUC National Delegates’ Conference 2023 on 22 November 2023.
ESM Goh Chok Tong
Sister Mary Liew, NTUC President
Brother Ng Chee Meng, NTUC Secretary-General
Brothers and Sisters
A very good morning to everybody!
I am delighted to join you this morning for this year’s NTUC National Delegates’ Conference. I am particularly happy that it is here in Orchid Country Club, because the first time I addressed an NTUC delegates’ conference was here in Orchid Country Club in the year 2000. And 23 years have passed, and we are back here, for the Delegates’ Conference again and in the year of LKY100 so it is a very good occasion.
LKY 100 – Reflections
It is a good occasion to reflect on the special relationship that Mr Lee had with the unions. Because as a young lawyer, Mr Lee began his political journey by fighting for workers’ rights. He represented the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union when the postmen went on strike in 1952. He championed their cause tenaciously and brilliantly and he successfully secured for the postmen higher wages and better employment terms. Thus, when Mr Lee set up the People’s Action Party two years later in 1954, the unions were on his side. At the inaugural PAP meeting at the Victoria Memorial Hall, almost half of the 14 convenors of the PAP were unionists. They included Mr Devan Nair, who was NTUC’s founding Secretary-General, and they also included Fong Swee Suan, who later became the founding Secretary-General of SATU – the Singapore Association of Trade Unions. Those of you who are not quite that old may not realise, but SATU was the rival of NTUC. In the next few years, one union after another invited Mr Lee to become their legal adviser. Eventually, he became legal adviser to nearly 100 unions. Many were left-wing, pro-Communist unions. Indeed, they were the largest ones. And these pro-Communist unions made common cause with the non-Communist group in the PAP, to fight against colonialism, and to fight for self-government and then independence. That was how, in 1959, the PAP won the general election, and formed the government of the state of Singapore.
But once the PAP was in power, there was a parting of ways, as both sides had fully anticipated. Two years later in 1961, the left-wing group split off from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis. And they took the left-wing unions with them, to form SATU, as I said, it was led by Fong Swee Suan. They pressured the government on all fronts to give up on Merger, because their goal was a Communist Malaya. A communist Malaya that included Singapore. So they organised multiple strikes and fomented mayhem, to bring the government down. Just imagine – in barely one year from July 1961, when the Barisan split off, to September 1962 – 15 months, there were more than 150 strikes, 10 strikes per month. Their aim was not to improve the lot of the workers. It was to oust the PAP Government and take power themselves.
The PAP knew that to defeat the pro-Communists, it needed strong support from the workers. So Devan Nair and Ho See Beng formed the NTUC, to rally the pro-PAP unions. The NTUC was a rump. SATU had 82 unions joining it but the NTUC could only find 12 unions to be affiliated to it. But eventually the NTUC and the PAP gained ground, won support, and became dominant..
I recall this history for a reason. As I told the PAP Convention recently, the PAP was not born dominant and neither was the NTUC born dominant. In 1961, the PAP was almost defeated by the pro-Communists, then in 1965, when we were in Malaysia, it was almost squelched by the communalists.
But we survived these baptisms of fire – these infernos – because Mr Lee and his comrades refused to give in. And Singaporeans – above all, the workers – saw that Mr Lee would never let them down, took heart, backed the PAP. And so we came through – the PAP together with the NTUC.
So when we talk about this symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC, it is not just an institutional arrangement, it is not just a forming of joint committees. It is rooted in history: born in struggle, forged in battle.
After Singapore separated from Malaysia, the new country launched on a path of industrialisation and growth. But soon, the British decided to withdraw their forces and to close their military bases in Singapore. Tens of thousands of workers stood to lose their jobs. Our economy would have plunged into a crisis. The dire situation demanded a decisive response.
So, in 1968, three years after independence, the PAP Government passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act. It created a more structured system for collective bargaining and resolution of disputes. Understandably, workers saw this as restricting their rights to engage in industrial action. The change was deeply unpopular, and yet it was vital to attract investments into Singapore. So that investors will have confidence that this is an environment which is orderly, which is predictable, which is fair, which is productive. And it had to be done. Fortunately, the NTUC unions and MPs understood the problem, and persuaded the workers to accept the bitter medicine. This boosted confidence, investments flowed in, displaced workers found new jobs, and a grave economic crisis was averted. In the end when the British left, with the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, with the full support of the workers, with confidence restored, actually, we sailed through. There was no crisis. But only because we took action to prevent the crisis from happening. And it was not the last time that Singapore avoided a crisis and it felt as if nothing had happened. But actually a lot of things had to go right to make sure that we came through.
The following year, 1969, saw another turning point in our labour-management relations. The NTUC held the Modernisation Seminar. Many founding leaders spoke at the Seminar, including Mr Lee, Devan Nair, Goh Keng Swee, and S. Rajaratnam. They were determined to break the mould of zero-sum, adversarial labour-management relations. They exhorted the unions to look beyond narrow short-term gains, and instead work for the Government and employers for the greater long-term good of workers and of Singapore. Mr Rajaratnam was then the Labour Minister and he said: “All three must make modernisation and economic development their common objective and overriding consideration”. All three meaning the unions, the employers and the government.
Mr Lee saw the unions as equal partners, playing a key role in nation building. He pointed out that there was a school of thought that it is better for an underdeveloped economy not to have trade unions, just like South Korea or Taiwan which at that time did not have trade unions. Later on their unions became quite fierce. But at that time they did not have any, they were under martial rule, and it seemed to be the way to make progress. But Mr Lee did not agree. He was convinced Singaporeans had to be a “proud and rugged” people, and the unions were key to this. In his words: “We do not want our workers submissive, and docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor, and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions. Self-respect is what our trade unions have and will give to workers, that protection for a man’s right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.”
And there you have it: Why we have unions in Singapore; Why we have strengthened the unions over the years; Why the symbiosis between the PAP and NTUC continues, and remains of vital importance. We are two sides of one national movement – “we” meaning the PAP and the NTUC. Two sides of one national movement, devoted to improving the lives of all Singaporeans, keeping us all together, as one united people, and ensuring that everyone, even the lowest-paid worker, has a “right to his own dignity, his dignity as a human being, as a citizen.”
The Modernisation Seminar established our unique model of tripartism. It completely changed the tone of labour relations. Through collaboration and compromise, we fostered industrial peace. Even as the unions continued to fight for workers, they kept the bigger picture in mind, and they were careful not to upset the applecart by disrupting Singapore’s economic growth. Coupled with a well-educated and disciplined workforce, this enabled us to industrialise, to develop our economy, and take off.
Of course, the unions continued to secure a fair deal for workers, especially through collective bargaining. And one key tripartite mechanism we developed for this was the National Wages Council (NWC). Each year, the unions, the employers, and the government would meet; the representatives would meet in the NWC. For close to 30 years, they deliberated under the deft Chairmanship of Prof Lim Chong Yah, who sadly passed away just a few months ago in July this year. The NWC would form a consensus view of the state of the economy, and make recommendations for wage adjustments. And these NWC recommendations provided a national framework which made bargaining at the company level much smoother. It helped the unionists to do their job. In good years, workers shared in the upside, through higher wage settlements and bonuses. In lean years, workers accepted lower wage settlements, and occasionally even wage cuts, once or twice, to help preserve jobs and enable the economy to recover. This habit of working together fostered mutual trust and respect. In time, the NWC went beyond recommending wage adjustments to deal with structural issues. Structural issues like implementing flexible wages, supporting lower-income workers, and promoting worker retraining.
Tripartism has been an enormous and enduring advantage as we restructured and grew our economy. It is truly our national treasure. You can see it, you can admire, you can try to imitate it. You cannot do it the same in other places. It is an open secret. Look at PSA – one of the leading ports in the world. Year after year, the PSA has had to modernise, upgrade, and automate its port operations, to reduce its costs even further, to keep operating more efficiently than other ports, to make up for the lack of a hinterland and for a tight labour market. And along the way, PSA had to make many difficult decisions. Sometimes, job losses could not be avoided. But each time, the tripartite partners – PSA, the unions, the Government – worked together to make sure we took care of the workers, and to help those who had to leave to find new jobs. Without the full support of the Port Officers’ Union – Sister Mary’s own union – and the Port Workers’ Union, PSA could not have done it.
I remember meeting a British union delegation in the late 1980s. I was then in MTI, they came to visit Singapore, they visited the port, they called on me. They represented the dockworkers from the port of London. British ports, particularly the London docks, were well-known for having difficult labour relations. The workers and the union resisted automation and change. They fought to preserve existing jobs and traditional ways of working, even when these were becoming obsolete and non-viable. So when the British unionists visited the PSA, they were puzzled why the PSA and the port workers were not similarly quarrelling. So they asked me, and I tried to explain to them our tripartite model, but I do not think they grasped how we could make it work. They were just stuck in a different place, in a different kind of history and relationship. Till today, British port operations are frequently paralysed by strikes and disputes, causing container traffic to be diverted to other ports in Europe. But in Singapore, our tripartite partners continue to cooperate closely to transform PSA’s operations, to redesign jobs, to retrain and upgrade workers. That is how we made PSA a world-class port – today, the second busiest in the world, with a new Megaport coming up in Tuas. And that is how we create new opportunities and prospects, not just for our port workers, but for Singapore as a whole.
The most severe test of tripartism comes when we run into a crisis, like COVID-19 recently. Both our lives and livelihoods were in great danger. The tripartite partners got together swiftly to help workers and companies to pull through. The government, supported by the NTUC and SNEF, implemented waves of safe management measures. These were disruptive, but essential to save lives. The government also passed successive special budgets, drawing heavily from past reserves to fund emergency schemes. The NTUC, supported by SNEF and MOM, quickly set up the Job Security Council (JSC). The Council helped to redeploy 70,000 workers from pandemic-hit sectors like aviation, to sectors that urgently needed manpower like healthcare. It helped many workers and their families to tide through the pandemic, and made all the difference. With funding from the Government, NTUC also implemented the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). Together with the NTUC Training Fund (Self-Employed Persons), this provided great relief to 200,000 self-employed workers. We could not do the help through an employer, and so we set up this scheme to deal directly with them. And NTUC had to deal with 200,000 self-employed persons – it is a huge number. But they did the job, they took the responsibility, and they delivered the help. I would like to thank everyone at NTUC for pitching in during the crisis, and helping Singapore to emerge stronger and more united. Thank you, brothers and sisters!
Pro-growth, pro-worker policies
Tripartism can work in Singapore because the PAP government is “pro-growth” and “pro-worker”. That is why we say PAP, “pro-growth” and “pro-worker”. As Mr Lee said, “The PAP has been a workers’ movement and has always received the support of the workers. A PAP Government is a government on the workers’ side”. In Singapore, we share the benefits of progress with all, and not just with the few. That was the credo of Mr Lee and our founding leaders. Today, it remains the PAP Government’s credo.
At the national level, the PAP Government is focussed on twin priorities: First, growing and developing our economy; and Second, – at the same time – enabling the workers to benefit fully from the economic growth that we create. So you grow the economy, at the same time we make sure it grows in such a way that the workers can benefit fully from the prosperity which is generated. So every Singaporean can enjoy good housing, healthcare, education – all subsidised heavily by the state. We not only create good jobs, but we educate and train workers to enable them to perform these jobs. That is why Singaporeans can look forward to better wages, higher standards of living, and brighter opportunities. With Forward SG, we will be doing even more to uplift workers, and especially to help those at the lower end to catch up.
With the Government leading the country in the right direction, it is much easier for the tripartite partners to work together to create prosperity and to share the fruits of growth. Because the framework is there, the big architecture is there, the government is doing the right thing. Within that, the country is heading in the right direction. The tripartite partners, we can work together to make sure that everything turns out well. And so, as a result, we have created a Singapore premium. A Singapore premium! Companies and investors are prepared to pay more to be here, to take advantage of our harmonious industrial relations and business-friendly environment. They value being in a country that knows where it is heading, where everyone pulls together for the common good, everything works, and life can get better for all. Singaporeans enjoy this premium personally. You carry a pink IC, you have a red passport, you go with pride and confidence anywhere in the world. You are at a premium, because of your identity, because you are part of this Singapore team. Our workers do similar jobs as other workers in the region. But because companies can operate more efficiently and reliably here. Because they can rely on our political stability and competent, clean government. Because they have every confidence and trust in Singapore and in you. Therefore, for doing the same job, workers in Singapore can earn significantly more than workers anywhere else in the region. That is why people are coming into Singapore to work – work permit holders, S-pass holders, employment pass holders – to be here. To be part of this successful team, is to command a premium. Not the opposite – you do not find Singaporeans queuing up to go somewhere nearby to work. A lot of people come here from not very far away to work. There is a reason, and we must keep it that way.
But the PAP has not just provided Singapore with good government, or improved people’s lives through sound policies. The PAP has also done its best to keep the cost of government as low as possible. Even as standards of living rise, our aspirations and expectations have also gone up. So although incomes have risen steadily year by year, many households still feel the pressures of the cost of living. And the PAP Government is very conscious of this, and does its utmost to moderate these pressures on households.
How do we do this? First, we run a lean and efficient government. Everything the Government does, all our programmes and all our projects – they have to be paid for. Somebody has to pay for it. Who pays for it? Ultimately, taxpayers pay for it. And we have kept this burden of the cost of the government as low as possible, and much lower than most developed countries. In Singapore, government revenues from fees and taxes make up only 15% of the GDP. Of all the money we produce, all the value-add in Singapore, only 15 cents in a dollar is taken by the government and used to run the system – 15%. If you look at Italy, a developed country in Europe, they spend about this amount just on state pensions (~15.3% of GDP in 2022). Not on the whole budget – just pensions alone is equal to the same percentage of GDP as our entire GST, Personal Income Tax, Property Tax, COEs, the whole lot. Next year, our GST is going up to 9%. People do not like it. It is not welcome. But see this in perspective, Italy has something equivalent to the GST. They call it the Value Added Tax (VAT). All the European countries have it. In Italy the Value Added Tax standard rate is 22%. And if you look at Scandinavian countries, like Sweden and Denmark, their standard VAT rate is 25%. So it is a very heavy burden of government in those countries on that model. But in our model, by keeping government spending and taxes low, we allow workers to enjoy the fruits of their own labour directly. What you earn, you can decide. You want to spend it on your children, that is good. You want to spend it on your house, that is up to you. You want to take it and go on holiday with your family? Well, a lot of Singaporeans do that, by the millions, literally. But it is your choice, rather than the government takes it from you and decides on your behalf that this is what we will do for you. So I can say that in terms of government services, Singaporeans are getting very good value for money! I would even say very cheap.
Secondly, to keep the cost of living low, we make sure that essential public services – like public transport, like water, like electricity, like healthcare – they are run efficiently and cost-effectively. Because again, one way or the other, somebody has to pay for these services. Either the user pays, through water and electricity tariffs or public transport fares, or the Government has to pay; subsidise them, which means ultimately, again, the taxpayer pays indirectly, through higher taxes. So in Singapore, we have avoided putting the whole burden on taxpayers. We require users to pay reasonable charges for these services. And we also require the operations to break even, and to earn a return, also known as a profit. Because that puts pressure on the operators to be efficient, to run in the best way which they can to keep their costs down. And it translates to cost savings for Singaporeans. Sometimes people argue that because these are public services, they should not aim to earn any profit at all. But I think that would be the wrong approach. Because that way, the transport operators and utilities providers would have no pressure to run efficiently. Just because a company is not making a profit does not mean it is giving you a cheap and good service. It may mean that it is running inefficiently, that you do not know that you are paying more, but it is not delivering value to you. You are just paying more and getting less. So it is better to let these service providers earn a reasonable profit, so that they have the resources to re-invest and improve services, and also the incentive to do this. Because if they work harder, if they do better, they earn a little bit more. And that is how it works. I mean when you go to work, you work harder, you perform better, you get more bonus. Nobody says do not have bonuses, just have fixed pay. You want to have some incentive there. And a profit is an incentive and properly managed, it is a good way to make the incentive.
It is the same with the NTUC Enterprises – if NTUC FairPrice did not break even and make a surplus every year, and did not give some dividends to all the NTUC FairPrice members every year, do you think it could grow the business and improve services to its members? It would have shut down long ago. Well, the Chinese say, 关门大吉. But because it has to break even, because there is a lot of pressure on the NTUC FairPrice Board, because we make them pay rent when they rent HDB properties. They recruit a good management team, they run a good operation, they break even. And they are able to have house brands, they are able to have basic necessities kept very affordable and they have a small dividend for you at the end of the year, if you have been a loyal customer. I think it is a good model. In fact, one of Dr Goh Keng Swee’s motivations for mooting the setting up of cooperatives. The first one was NTUC Income, not FairPrice, but FairPrice came later, but the motivation was the same. And that motivation was so that union leaders would learn how businesses are supposed to work, and they can understand, profit is not a dirty word.
So this is our approach, there is a reason we do it this way and we think it is the right way to do it for workers’ interests. But of course, it is not always so easy to do because when from time-to-time the cost of providing these services go up, then the charges also have to be adjusted, also have to go up – whether it is public transport fares, whether it is electricity tariffs and water tariffs, hospital fees. Sometimes it has to be adjusted, each time it is hard. Fare increases, fee increases are never welcome. We must always get the companies to try hard, to trim costs further, to operate more efficiently, and we must be very careful not simply to pass on any higher costs to consumers without thinking about it. But still, when fee increases or fare increases cannot be avoided, we have to go through with them. Sometimes you can enhance productivity, you can save money, you can pass on the benefits to consumers. Buses in Singapore used to have conductors, two men per bus, it costs money. And the conductor cannot earn very much because it is not a very productive job. So to save costs we went from two M.O. to O.M.O., one-man-operation, one bus driver. He sits there, you come on, you tap, he does everything, he gets paid more, he has a bigger job, service quality improves. What do I do next? One day maybe no M.O. No bus driver. You go on, the robot says “hi, good morning!” and then you get onto the bus. It may come, not so soon, but it may come. But meanwhile when costs go up, when wages go up, when petrol or diesel prices go up, when new buses which are safer, cost more, what do we do? Well, you have to adjust fares and we have to explain to people why this has to be done.
I think overall, this approach has worked quite well. We have brought our public transport system to a high standard, our fares, frankly speaking, are among the lowest in the developed world. Our utilities are reliable and affordable. You turn on the tap, water comes out – clean water comes out. Water you can drink. You flick the switch the light comes on; it comes on properly it does not flicker and then go out. I went on an overseas visit earlier this year, I visited a museum. I went to the museum; they had little lights in the corners everywhere. They said, “Very sorry, today black out”. It cannot be helped, it was a national problem, everybody knew it, cannot be solved. But if that happens in Singapore, I would be preparing to answer questions in parliament this afternoon. So we have got good value for money! Good services, I would say, good unions and good government. All very cheap.
This strategy has kept costs moderate for all households. But some households will have special circumstances, will need extra help, and we have provided this extra help. We have given them targeted assistance, in the form of cash or vouchers – like U-save rebates, Public Transport Vouchers, GST Vouchers, CDC Vouchers, MediFund – to help you pay your medical fees if you cannot afford even the subsidised rates. And we target it, so that those who most need help get the most help. Depending on the household, it can be a lot of help, some households will get up to $9,000 of direct help in this financial year. It is not a small sum of money, for a household like that, it may be three, four, five times their monthly income. And this way, it is much better than subsidising electricity or water prices across the board, which some other countries do. Because with across-the-board subsidies, who gets the most benefits? The households who use the most water and electricity, and they are not the poor small households. They are the not so poor, reasonably well-off bigger households. They have got bigger properties, they may have a koi pond or maybe an arowana tank. They may have a big screen TV, they may have a home theatre. Well, all that costs water, electricity, and they are consuming more. Why should I subsidise them more? What for? They do not need it. I should take my resources and help the people who need the help. Also if I subsidised it across the board, then households will have no incentive to save, to conserve, because they do not bear the proper cost. Instead of paying 30 cents per kilowatt hour, you are paying 10 cents, there is no incentive to say, “you are leaving the room, better turn the light off”. Your children do not turn the light off, you scold them a little bit. In the former Soviet Union, when everything was practically free, you leave the room – one of our unionists went there – He left the room, he turned the lights off. His host scolded him, he said, “You are stupid, we are not paying for the electricity, why do you turn the light off?” So you want to do the right thing for Singaporeans, sometimes people say it is tough love, but it is not so tough, it is real love.
So that is why our strategy I think it is better. But of course, in a difficult year like this one, when growth is slower, when prices are going up faster, when wages are not quite keeping up with prices, then we need to think what more we can do to help Singaporeans. Because you do not want to add to the burden of Singaporeans. Can we delay the price adjustments to a more favourable time? Actually, there is no favourable time, but less unfavourable time. Or should we just proceed with the fee increases, but carefully manage their overall impact on households? And I think we do a combination of both.
Naturally, in a difficult year, we have to think extra hard about increasing fees. If it is not essential, if we can delay them for a while longer, or at least moderate the immediate increase, we should do that. Hold it off for a little bit, just ‘tahan’ and we can manage, next year maybe it is not so difficult, and we have done that. For example, with public transport fares. This year, the Government has absorbed two thirds of what the increase was supposed to be. We had a formula, the formula gave a number, it was like 10% - 12%. We said no, this year we cannot do that. We will just do one third. We cannot do nothing, we will do one third. But the two thirds, the government will absorb. And for this year that means the government writes the cheque for $300m just for this year. It is not cheap. But for this year, I think it is necessary, we do that.
But some price increases will not be avoidable or ‘postpone-able’. And if you just push them off, it does not solve the problem. Because next year the shortfall will become bigger. Then what do you do? And in that case, sometimes, after thinking about it, you have no choice. Well, we have to proceed but we will also, if necessary, be more generous with the targeted support to households. So people know that. It is not just paying more but the households who really have difficulty will get more help. So with public transport fares, there are public transport vouchers. And this year the voucher is a bit more generous than previous years. Water prices have gone up, we have U-Save, and the U-Save helps you to pay for water price and in fact, even more. And I think this approach has worked. In previous downturns, we would see more families who would have difficulty with their utilities bill. They would go to PUB, they would have to get pay-as-you-use meters, and then you top up the card, you turn on the light, the card runs down. Or they would go to MPS sessions and ask MPs for help, because they are at wits’ end, and so many bills and they come and say, my utilities bill, please help me. But this time, since COVID, since we have raised the U-Save significantly to solve this problem, we have not seen an increase in people with difficulties paying their utilities bill. In fact, I asked our people for the data, MTI gave me the data during the last three years, the number of families who have difficulties paying the utilities bill have come down, because we have given them targeted help. And at the same time, we have kept electricity prices at the right level. And we have kept water prices, we are adjusting them, I think we are doing the right thing.
So we are keeping our public services financially sustainable and of a high standard in the long-term, while in the short-term giving households extra help according to their need, and sharing the burden fairly with everybody. This is how the PAP government keeps faith with workers. We do right by them, through good times and bad. And we will always do that.
Future-ready unions, future-ready workforce
Looking ahead, the Labour Movement will need to continuously reinvent itself to stay relevant. The world is facing all kinds of challenges – great power rivalry, regional conflicts, deglobalisation, climate change, and technological advances. You read all our speeches you will hear all about them. Today, no need for me to talk a lot more. But there will also be new opportunities, while we experience new social and economic pressures. In tech, rapid developments in AI and robotics will dramatically change the way we live and work. Last week I visited San Francisco, I went to Silicon Valley, I visited Google, I visited Apple. Their engineers showed me some of the new projects and gizmos they are working on with great excitement. Because they are promising, they are very exciting to imagine what can be done, and they are convinced that this is going to make a radical change in a lot of jobs, and will change the world. So they said, here is a robot, program it. I said, “I do not know how to program a robot’. He said, it is very easy, I will show you, “you click here, you choose this, you tell the robot to go there, you tell the robot, pick it up, come over, come down”. So with him holding my hand I got the short tutorial. I can learn to do it. If I can learn to do it because the robot is now smarter, a lot of workers can do it. Some jobs are not going to be there anymore, certainly the job of the man who used to take it from point A to point B is not going to be there anymore. But the job for the man who programs the robot, that would be a new job, And many of us will be able to learn to do it and will have to learn how to adapt and to make a living in this environment and that is the kind of future which we are going to be in. What does that mean for Singapore? Jobs are going to change, the nature of it, significantly. And not just blue-collar jobs, but white-collar and professional jobs too. Overall, productivity should go up, and we should enjoy higher growth. But to get from here to there, the transformation is going to be so great, that many individual workers and livelihoods are going to be affected.
How should the unions adapt to these changes? Some people think that with such rapid changes, the unions should just step aside and let the changes happen, play a small role. In fact, elsewhere, many employers and many governments do not encourage unions. They believe that flexibility is the key, that strong unions would only get in the way of economic restructuring. You have a union, you will have to negotiate with them, it will take time. By the time you finish negotiating an agreement, already three new versions of the technology have come up from your competitor. Better we just go ahead and the workers, if they have to change jobs, it cannot be helped. Let them change jobs. But from the point of view of the individual worker, when you are displaced from your job, and you are on your own – and it is a very painful experience. Suddenly, not just your income stream has run out, but what do you do every morning? You wake up, you stare at the ceiling, what do I do next? What is the purpose in my life? And you will be uncertain, you will be disgruntled, you will be worried. Sooner or later all the unhappy people will get together, mobilise and push against the changes which are affecting them. And not in a productive way. We would end up quarrelling at loggerheads. It is bad. And that is why the PAP Government rejects this view that unions should play a smaller role in the future.
At the Modernisation Seminar in 1969, Mr Lee Kuan Yew expressed his conviction that Singapore’s future depended on having strong unions. I am convinced that in a vastly changed world – a world that is continuing to change rapidly, this is still true. The Labour Movement will play a vital role in Singapore for many years to come. And I know that my successor DPM Lawrence Wong thinks so too.
What will you do as a Labour Movement? Your traditional roles will still be relevant – fighting for workers’ rights, helping them to have good jobs, representing them in dispute settlement. But if we only seek to shield workers from disruption, if we fight to resist inevitable changes, then like the London dockworkers, the world will move on, and we will be left behind.
Instead, we need to carry on the spirit of the Modernisation Seminar. We need to reinvent and reimagine the Labour Movement to make it one that guides workers to keep up with a changing economy and job market through upgrading and reskilling; to help workers to stay employable, though not always in the same job; to reassure workers, you are not alone, the Labour Movement is here for you. The PAP and NTUC will have your backs; and for the Labour Movement to work with the Government to provide all Singaporeans a fair chance at success.
Therefore, I am happy that the NTUC carried out the #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations (#EWMC) over the past year. The #EWMC effort dovetails with the Forward Singapore exercise. Brother Chee Meng told me, you held over 8,000 hours of conversations with more than 42,000 workers to understand their anxieties and aspirations. I read the report, I was encouraged by your ideas to refresh the workers’ compact and prepare our workforce for the future. The NTUC LearningHub and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) will offer training programmes to keep workers employable. The Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute will run courses for union leaders to prepare them to face the new challenges. NTUC is also pushing for Company Training Committees (CTCs). And we provided some support from the government. I am happy it is being put to good use. CTCs reflect tripartism in a new era – we are bringing unions and companies together to drive transformation and to equip workers with future-ready skillsets and to meet the companies’ business needs. There is one example, Chew's Agriculture, which produces fresh eggs. They partnered NTUC U SME and SISEU to form a CTC, to replace manual processes with an automatic egg grading and packing system. Now the operations are faster and safer; workers have been freed up to be redeployed to other higher-skilled more productive jobs; and older workers have received extra training and they can perform their duties more safely and more easily. And the benefits and cost savings have been passed on to workers in higher wages. Chew’s Agriculture is now on track to increase production to one million eggs a day, providing a more secure supply of eggs to all Singaporeans. There must be quite a few of us who had Chew’s eggs for breakfast this morning. This is how the tripartite partners work together to create win-win outcomes, better profits for companies, – profits – remember it is not a dirty word, for companies and better wages for workers. The economists call this a virtuous circle. But I say we have cracked a chicken-and-egg problem.
Besides fostering transformation and upgrading, I encourage the Labour Movement to continue broadening your representation. Take care of the different segments of the workforce – from rank-and-file workers to PMETs, from youths to mid-career and older workers, SMEs, gig workers, and also the migrant workforce. Work with the government, work with SNEF and SBF, to support the harder-to-reach workers in the more fragmented sectors. And go beyond providing representation and benefits, to train workers to promote their lifelong employability. NTUC Enterprises must also keep refreshing their offerings to be relevant to the workers of today and tomorrow. This will help to maintain the trust and harmony that we have built up over years, and keep us all together, as we build a more inclusive and a more united society.
The symbiotic relationship
For all this to happen, the PAP and the NTUC must continue to work hand in hand. It has been our approach right from the very beginning, during Mr Lee’s time. The PAP worked closely with the unions to understand workers’ needs, to champion their interests, to pursue policies that improve their lives and livelihoods. And on their part, the workers gave PAP a strong political base and popular support. That was how the PAP Government won the people’s mandate in successive elections to implement policies and to build Singapore.
More than 60 years later, the PAP is still in government, and the NTUC still organises the whole Labour Movement. The PAP is committed to strengthening and sustaining this political partnership for many years to come. And I am confident, so is the NTUC.
This symbiotic relationship applies at all levels. Unionists do not just turn up for Party Conferences; they also serve in the constituencies as branch activists. Many are Party members, when they are branch activities they wear white. When they come for the NTUC National Delegates’ Conference, they wear their ‘U’ T-shirt. At the leadership level, I keep in close touch with your Secretary-General, the POHs who are in the Labour Movement, and the MPs who are from the Labour Movement. We meet regularly to discuss all major policy issues, and take in their views and concerns. At the same time, Brother Chee Meng and his fellow union leaders help to communicate the national perspectives to the unions, to the workers, so they can better understand how NTUC fits into the national context – what you can help do, to help us make your lives and your jobs better.
We must always continue building this partnership between the PAP and the NTUC. The next General Election must be held within two years. The PAP looks forward to fielding new party candidates from the Labour Movement. We have identified a couple, and I am confident they will represent workers and constituents well. And I look forward to them joining and entering the political fight.
The Labour Movement is a pillar of strength for our workers and businesses. It continues to look out for workers’ welfare; it secures them a share in Singapore’s economic growth. It gives them a stake in our progress. I thank the outgoing Central Committee which has led NTUC in the last 4 years. On top of dealing with the disruptions of the pandemic, Brother Chee Meng and his team have championed the interests of workers, and resolutely delivered on their initiatives since the last NDC. And the union leaders have strengthened tripartism, assiduously, dedicatedly, year after year. Like Sister Mary Liew. She has been a trade unionist since 1982 and the President of NTUC since 2015. She has championed the interests of workers throughout. And she will be stepping down this year. Also, Brother Ong Hwee Liang, who is Vice-President and has 30 years of service to the Labour Movement, he has done much to strengthen the relationship between unions, employers and Government. He is also stepping down this year together with a few other NTUC Central Committee members. Thank you, Sister Mary and Brother Hwee Liang. We wish you all the best!
Tomorrow, you will be electing a new NTUC Central Committee. NTUC’s success continues to depend on the quality of your leadership. Just like Singapore, the NTUC needs leaders with integrity, competence, conviction, and a genuine heart for the interests of workers and the country. So I urge delegates, please vote wisely, give your new leaders a strong mandate. Support them, support their vision, help them to lead the Labour Movement to improve workers’ lives.
That way, we continue to strengthen our model of tripartism and keep it a lasting competitive advantage in an uncertain world. That way, we create a better future for our workers and for Singapore.
Thank you very much.
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